Image courtesy Bruce Reyes-Chow
China has been no stranger to territorial conflict throughout its long and complex history, having met plenty of resistance while spreading its dynamic culture near and far. Today is no different, as intense disputes over tiny island chains in the South and East China Seas have left China in a state of particularly poor relations with some of its most important neighbors. These disputes, of course, do not bode well for maintaining reasonable terms over some of the region’s most important geopolitical issues. However, what has become equally as apparent—and potentially more important—is the way these conflicts are currently affecting the way China conducts humanitarian policies in the region. As China continues to rise toward the top of global power and influence, many assert that with it comes a rising role of global responsibility. What we have found thus far is that China does not appear interested in taking up that challenge.
After Typhoon Haiyan—an exceptionally powerful storm—roared through Southeast Asia in early November and devastated parts of the Philippines, leaving the country’s death toll at over 6,000, China surprised the global community by offering a meager $100,000 in humanitarian aid. This, compared to the tens of millions of dollars in aid offered by many of the world’s most powerful countries, was perceived as particularly frugal and, to some, downright disrespectful. Understandably, China received quite a bit of backlash for its decision and soon thereafter increased its contribution to $1.6 million and committed state medical resources to the areas of the Philippines most affected by the disaster. However, China’s initial contribution seemed to clearly define its true opinion on the issue.
Despite China’s late arrival to the hard-hit Philippines, its aid and assistance was, of course, still received warmly and excitedly by the victims. When a natural disaster afflicts a nation, political relations no longer seem to matter to many. Filipino residents greatly embraced China’s support. Gina Tubigon expressed her appreciation after China’s arrival ensured the survival of her sister-in-law, Elesea. A 75-year-old suffering from a chronic respiratory ailment that worsened in the wake of the typhoon, Elesea may not have lived through the storm’s aftermath had it not been for the assistance of the Chinese medical team. Relieved about her sister-in-law’s stabilized condition, Gina expressed her appreciation, noting, “I know the relationship between the Philippines and China is not good, but we’re very thankful for the help.” This purely honest and non-politically calculated sentiment sums up the importance of cooperative relations between the two nations. It also suggests the possibility that a lack of increased aid and assistance from the Chinese government may have caused Gina to lose her sister-in-law.
Relations between the two countries have been tumultuous for some time. As China continues its unprecedented rise, with an increasingly strong military accompanying extraordinary economic development, its Southeast Asian neighbors have become more and more anxious about territorial integrity. As China’s claims to the region become more extensive, the Philippines has been bolstering its defense and maritime law enforcement—with the help of US support—and has sought endorsements from ASEAN during the process. The Philippines, just like many of its regional neighbors, has endorsed the US’s recent pivot to Asia, as a mechanism to balance against Beijing’s increased maritime objectives.
These exhaustive disputes have occurred between the two countries for decades, but have become further amplified in recent years, as China’s claim to maritime territory off the coast of the Philippines—the 200 nautical mile radius that makes up its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—has continued to expand. This includes a tiny rock called the Scarborough Shoal, which is no bigger that the size of a relatively small raft, yet vital to the two countries, as it holds important designation for charting territorial boundaries. The dispute between the two countries serves as a microcosm for a more general trend of tension and insecurity that has existed between China and its neighbors further south.
Though these tensions have persisted for many years, amplified to greater extents during certain periods more so than others, they have ceased to have a highly significant or long-term impact on trade relations in the region. Yet, China’s frugal initial response to Haiyan relief reflected a new realm of implications—that these strained relations are having a negative impact on how China is handling its humanitarian policy in the region. As the countries of East Asia continue developing economically, their regional interdependence grows in import. They must be prepared to support one another in combatting natural international crises that extend beyond politics, such as typhoons of the magnitude of Haiyan, especially when these crises have potential for mutually severe impact on multiple countries in the region.
China’s interest in extended control and influence over the region of the South China Sea—and East China Sea as well—has caused many to ponder whether Beijing also plans to embrace a wider role of responsibility regarding international crises. By offering such a small amount of financial aid during the immediate aftermath of this horrific storm, Beijing has implied that—at least for the time being—national interests remain the focal point of its current objectives, clearly trumping the need to be an international leader.
Of course, China’s stance toward the Haiyan relief effort is certainly not simple—with a range of complex considerations likely at play throughout the decision-making process. One fundamental question posed in response to China’s position is whether China is currently choosing not to emphasize the importance of more intimate relations with its neighbors—and the international community more generally—in order to instead commit more focus inward. As the Chinese government creates very carefully calculated strategies regarding domestic economic growth and infrastructural development, large numbers of financial resources and assets are presently committed to various projects throughout the country.
Indeed, China’s current national economic milieu is one of many different parts. These parts include initiatives such as western economic expansion, raising the standard of living for larger populations, developing the nation’s energy sector in a push for cleaner sources of fuel to drive the country’s future development, further establishing modern industries throughout different parts of the country (i.e. financial, technological, and creative/cultural sectors)—and many others. In addition, unprecedented economic progress has also instigated a range of complex social strains, some of which have never before been seen. Actively seeking to deal with these increasingly pronounced issues, such as frustration with appallingly high levels of pollution, larger interest in individual freedoms and self-expression among Chinese citizens, and rapidly evolving national identity—to list only a few—the Chinese government is carefully undertaking its national strategy.
As China consciously addresses these economic and social factors, simultaneous emphasis on non-political/economic international issues may not be on the immediate agenda. National leadership may currently ascertain that, still in an infant state of modern global importance and influence, this complex and highly dynamic country is not in a position to fully involve itself financially and logistically in these types of crises. However, regardless of China’s strategy with respect to regional and international stability—which at this point can only be speculated—what is clear is that China’s highly active position in geopolitical affairs has caused its western counterparts to expect a greater level of support from the rising giant towards these types of crises. Most important will be how China responds to this increased level of pressure and expected responsibility from its global economic partners as similar issues come about into the future.
Nevertheless, in the case of Haiyan, this is only but one event in the midst of a lengthy modern history of strained relations between these two countries that has fluctuated in degree over the years. Therefore, only time will tell if China’s increasingly powerful international role will cause the economic powerhouse to engage the international community differently into the future. In the meantime, the aid and assistance that China did eventually provide to the Haiyan relief effort was effective and surely prevented many from severe illness or death. The victims of the storm as well as those on the medical relief team were not considering regional political tensions as lives were saved. This kind of understanding and expectation will hopefully be at the core of decision-making between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors into the future, as a rapidly changing world seeks to prioritize people over politics.