Power games in the shadow of disaster | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 14.11.2013
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Power games in the shadow of disaster

The whole world is rallying round to help the Philippines after the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan. Only China is hesitant - Bejing's reserve has a political history.

Six days after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, the international community has shown its willingness to help. The European Union has earmarked 13 million euros ($17.5 million) for the aid effort, Japan around $10 million, and the US some $20 million. The US has also sent an aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, with back-up ships, 5,000 soldiers, helicopters and transport planes.

In stark contrast, the Chinese government initially offered just $100,000, plus the same amount from the Chinese Red Cross. Following criticism, it's been raised to $2 million - but many experts consider the move too late.

Disaster relief rivalry

China's hesitant approach has a political history. China has been in dispute with the Philippines and other countries on the South China Sea about sovereignty over a number of islands, fishing grounds, trade routes and, above all, over huge quantities of raw materials which are believed to be under the sea-bed.

Two Chinese surveillance ships which sailed between a Philippines warship and eight Chinese fishing boats to prevent the arrest of Chinese fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal REUTERS/Philippine Army Handout/Files

Philippine and Chinese ships have been watching each other suspiciously on the South China Sea

The conflict with the Philippines reached a high point in January 2013 when the Philippines took a dispute over the Scarborough Shoal, just 200 kilometers (120 miles) off its coast, to the UN International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Although a ruling against China would not be enforceable, it would be bad for China's image - China rejects any international involvement and insists on bilateral negotiations. It wants to avoid internationalizing the conflict and thus to drive a wedge between the countries on the South China Sea, which are all members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

China's main target has been the Philippines, says Gerhard Will, South-East Asia specialist with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP): "The People's Republic of China has tried very hard to isolate the Philippines in ASEAN. It has been developing good relations - in some cases very good relations - with the ASEAN countries. It makes generous offers, but it leaves the Philippines out." It's this hostile attitude that has led China to give such a small sum to the Philippines and to do so so hesitantly.

Anti-Philippines feeling is not limited to the government; it's often supported by popular opinion. The Hong Kong government, for example, wanted to give some $5 million, but many people were against it. The founder of the Social Research Institute in Shenzhen, Liu Kaiming, told Deutsche Welle that this was because of a hostage taking in Manila in 2010 when eight Hong Kong tourists were killed during the rescue attempt. On Chinese social media, two thirds of the respondents are opposed to helping the Philippines.

China losing an opportunity

China's reluctance to help could turn out to be expensive, even though it has recently been making ground in South-East Asia. In early October, US President Barack Obama canceled his visits to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Indonesia and the ASEAN meeting in Brunei because of the budget crisis at home.

Chinese President Xi Jinping needed no further bidding and declared in his keynote speech: "China cannot develop isolated from the Asia-Pacific region, and the region cannot make progress without China."

(L-R) China's President Xi Jinping, Mexico's President Felipe Calderon, Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Philippines' President Benigno Aquino arrange themselves for a family photo at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit REUTERS/Beawiharta

Obama was missing at the APEC summit

Gerhard Will argues that Obama's absence was exploited by the Chinese: "China has been able to present itself very strongly in South-East Asia in the last few months, since the US has presented itself so weakly." The Chinese press had a field day with Obama's absence, with a clear message. "You can see that the USA isn't able to play a serious role in the region. We, the Chinese, are the ones who can play that role."

The events in the Philippines, the decisive help from the US and the hesitant response of the Chinese have changed all that. As Will says, "Things have turned out altogether to China's disadvantage. The US has decisively used this opportunity to restore its image in the region."

Li Dun of Tsinghua University in Beijing regrets China's behavior, and says it's down to China's increased nationalism: "One has to warn against nationalism, because it threatens our 30 years of trying to return to the international community."

Liu Kaiming wants to keep politics right out of the issue: "My view is that one should separate politics from the issue of humanitarian assistance."

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