China’s Revealing Typhoon Haiyan Response
Image Credit: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection via Flickr

China’s Revealing Typhoon Haiyan Response


In response to the tragedy that has unfolded over the past days in the Philippines, a number of  countries have rushed to contribute to the recovery efforts. Altruism is its own reward, of course, but the aid ultimately gives these countries influence with the Philippine people and government. The recovery efforts have been rapid, albeit not rapid enough for those devastated by the disaster. One nation, however, has been notably absent: China.

China's foreign ministry announced that the country would provide $100,000 in cash and “humanitarian emergency relief assistance” to the Philippines, an absurdly paltry amount in comparison to the aid provided by other nations. For instance, the United Arab Emirates, home to approximately 700,000 Philippine nationals, has pledged $10 million, while regional powers Australia and the Republic of Korea have pledged $10 million and $5 million respectively. The United States has deployed a team of about 90 Marines and sailors as part of the first wave of promised U.S. military assistance amounting to $20 million.

As well as meeting the human needs of this tragedy, this disaster relief assistance is a remarkably effective — and inexpensive — investment in the future. Joseph Nye, Harvard Professor and former Assistant Secretary of Defense, coined the term “soft power” to describe this investment. According to Nye, soft power is the process of attraction, which allows a state to attain its desired outcomes by co-opting people rather than coercing them through “hard power” actions such as military action or economic sanctions. Soft power events such as disaster relief are an important component of foreign policy because of the lasting goodwill that results from the support. The massive U.S. relief effort in response to the 2004 earthquake and tsunami built American goodwill in Indonesia and long-term ally Thailand. According to Jonah Blank, a senior political scientist at the non-profit, non-partisan RAND Corporation and a former policy director for South and Southeast Asia on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the tsunami relief effort may rank as one of the most concrete reasons Southeast Asian nations trust rather than fear the U.S. refocus on the Pacific Rim in its strategy of "Asian rebalancing."

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China has recognized the effect of soft power in influencing other nations. In 2007, Hu Jintao, then General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, enjoined the Party leadership to increase its soft power. Since 2004 the Communist government has embarked on an aggressive campaign to champion Chinese language and culture by establishing a series of non-profit government funded Confucius Institutes. According to Nye, a rising power like China should use soft power to made its growing economic and military might appear less frightening to its neighbors. A smart strategy employing soft power should lesson the concerns of Chinese expansion and make balancing coalitions less effective.

Unfortunately the Chinese government has missed two important lessons regarding soft power. The first is that soft power is more effectively developed through civil society. Everything from universities and foundations to pop culture provide a strong attractive force for other societies and cultures. The least effective instrument of soft power is the government. Government attempts at building soft power are rarely credible. The second lesson is that disaster relief is probably the most effective method to give a “soft edge” to military force. China has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to contesting territorial claims on the Scarborough Shoal by deploying naval, coast guard, and china marine surveillance vessels to the area. The lack of disaster assistance is telling of Chinese long-term intentions.

The current snub is a reflection of China’s dissatisfaction with a recent appeal by the Philippine government to a United Nations Arbitral Tribunal to resolve the dispute over the Scarborough Shoal. It is the first time that Beijing has been taken to a U.N. tribunal and China is fuming because a loss in arbitration could seriously affect its ambitions in the South China Sea, encouraging other countries to counter Chinese territorial claims through U.N. action. China insists that territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea should be settled through bilateral negotiation, mainly because of its unmatched hard power in the region.

Typhoon Haiyan has given Beijing an opportunity to show that it can be a responsible regional leader, showing a softer side to its ambitions in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately it is failing miserably. The Chinese state-run Global Times newspaper said in an editorial on Tuesday, “China’s international image is of vital importance to its interests. If it snubs Manila this time, China will suffer great losses.” The editorial is prescient in its prediction. Haiyan has shown that China’s ambitions are hard power related. Southeast Asia and the U.S. have a right to be concerned.

Daniel Baltrusaitis, Ph.D., is a Professor of Strategy and Strategic Studies at the National Defense College of the United Arab Emirates.

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