China Throws Away a Chance to Lead

Alleviating the human suffering left in Typhoon Haiyan’s wake is now rightly front of mind for much of the world. But a geopolitical effect is becoming clear too. The stark contrast between key countries’ humanitarian responses could have a lasting impact on the balance of influence in Asia.

Of course, the core issue should not be politics but the survival and rebuilding of storm-wracked communities. It may seem heartless to speculate about the geopolitics of a disaster that has taken thousands of lives. But there is always an edge of strategic diplomacy to nations’ efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance.

That was the case in 2004, when a core group of the United States, Japan, India and Australia quickly mobilized to help victims of the cataclysmic Indian Ocean tsunami. That experience improved relations with Indonesia and enhanced the trust and inter-operability among their forces.

A subsequent “quadrilateral” dialogue in 2007—a meeting of officials to talk lessons learned from disaster relief—led to claims that the four seagoing democracies were using humanitarianism as a cloak to gang up on China.

These days China itself is supposedly capable of using its forces to do good while serving its own interests, such as through its counterpiracy taskforce in the Gulf of Aden. Another of these “new historic missions” used to justify China’s ever-expanding military budget and naval power-projection capabilities is humanitarian relief.

So it’s surprising that Beijing has not stepped up to help the Philippines. On the contrary, its response has been miserly and slow-moving. With an initial donation of only $100,000, followed days later by a begrudging $1.6 million worth of tents and blankets, China has allowed its South China Sea dispute with the Philippines to cloud its compassion and distort its diplomacy.

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