Major contrast with China’s regional profile
With US President Barack Obama having
failed to show up at last month's APEC summit in Bali, the US Marines have
landed again on the Philippine island of Leyte in a display of quick response
to Typhoon Haiyan that seems certain to be welcomed by the storm-ravaged
country and is symbolic of the continued US presence in the region.
The public relations value of the
straight-talking, telegenic Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, commander of the
Okinawa-based 3rd Marine Expedition Brigade, and his troops, unarmed, helping
out in the devastated city of Tacloban soon after the storm hit could hardly be
lost on Washington – or the region.
China’s response was slower but by
Tuesday a flight with relief goods on board a large Chinese cargo plane
arrived. Initially, though, the US was quicker and far more thorough.
The Marine operation encompasses up
to nine C-130s plus four MV-22 Ospreys—tilt-rotor planes that can operate
without runways—and two P3 Orion aircraft for search and rescue. It is the
first of a massive response by the US to the tragedy, which is believed to have
killed at least 10,000 people and probably many more.
That the Marines are in Leyte, almost
70 years after Gen. Douglas MacAthur's famous landing, displays, without much
need to draw it out, the long relationship that Washington maintains with its
former colony and serves as the most dramatic display possible of the region’s
need for a US presence.
landed shortly after the disaster with Kennedy leading an advance contingent
that will quickly grow.
Kennedy said Monday in comments replayed on CNN and elsewhere. "Roads are
impassable, trees are all down, posts are down, power is down…We are gonna move
stuff as they direct, as the Philippine government and the armed forces
The US’s immediate response on top of
the Marines’ arrival includes emergency shelter and hygiene materials from the
US Agency for International Development, 55 tons of emergency food to feed
20,000 children and 15,000 adults for five days, and US$100,000 for water and
sanitation support from the US Embassy in Manila. On Monday, the US announced
that the USS George Washington aircraft carrier and its support fleet,
numbering 7,000 sailors, has been dispatched from a port call in Hong Kong to
support relief efforts.
That stands in stark contrast to the
offer by Beijing of a relatively minuscule US$200,000 in cash. If Beijing were
seeking to project its soft power in the South China Sea, that didn’t do it and
indeed it is shown up by aid flowing in from across the world.
China, of course, has coast guard
vessels not far away projecting its claim to reefs and shoals that are also
claimed by the Philippines. It is unlikely those Chinese vessels will be
steaming to Leyte.
To be sure, many Filipinos are still
wary of Washington's intentions. But at least when it comes to disaster
response, the US military's presence in the region can be greatly helpful. The
US military response to the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, for example, helped to warm
relations with Indonesia after years of tensions over human rights violations.
The US legacy in the region can be
mixed – and lately tarnished by a massive bribery scandal going all the way up
to admirals over berthing logistics fees ‑ but its ability to project force and
lift into disasters is almost always a welcome sight.
Other countries have also quickly
responded. According to Reuters, Australia announced a US$10 million package,
including medical personnel and non-food items such as tarpaulins, sleeping
mats, mosquito nets, water containers and hygiene kits; the UK announced a £6
million (US$9.6 million) package including aid for up to 500,000 people
including temporary shelter, water, plastic sheeting and household items. New
Zealand has offered NZ$2.15 million in aid, Japan is sending a 25-strong
emergency medical relief team and Indonesia is dispatching aircraft and
logistical aid including personnel, drinking water, food, generators,
antibiotics and other medication.
Domestically the Philippines disaster
response has almost never been adequate even in the normal disasters that occur
on a regular basis. It lacks the kind of heavy-lift aircraft needed in a
disaster and its outdated air force is hardly a match for the typhoon's
devastating aftermath. The Marines, for example, brought in the mobile radar
and lighting equipment needed to get the Tacloban airport working.
Asked by CNN what is most needed,
Richard Gordon, the head of the Philippine Red Cross, said "Heavy lifting,
the movement of relief goods... to deliver goods to the areas that need
them." Asia Sentinel