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Written by Cole Pfeiffer

Typhoon Haiyan, which crashed into the Philippines nearly two weeks ago, has resulted in a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. The most recent estimates by the Philippine government note that over 5,000 people died so far, and over four million were left homeless due to the storm. It will take a momentous effort to rebuild and revitalize the country, leading it back to normality.

For the most part, the international community has risen to the occasion. The United States and United Kingdom have so far led the charge, with donations reaching $37 million and $80 million respectively. Additionally, both sent troops, aircraft, and even aircraft carriers to aid in the Philippines’ reconstruction. Smaller Pacific allies, including South Korea, Japan, and Australia also donated millions of dollars to the reconstruction. Even Indonesia, which faced horrific typhoons and tsunamis in its recent past, sent millions in aid and logistical support.

Initially, China managed a mere $100,000. (It did, however, muster another $100,000 after a week of international pressure, and it also later pledged an additional $1.4 million in relief supplies).

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An aerial view of a coastal town devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in Samar province in central Philippines [Photo credit: Reuters/Erik De Castro]

Geopolitics interferes

The drastic discrepancy between the aid package of China, the second largest economy in the world, and Indonesia, a country that faces severe poverty, is striking. What can account for China’s aversion to joining the rest of the region in an earnest reconstruction effort?

The answer lies in the complex geopolitics of the region. Prior to the Philippines’ disaster, tensions ran high between the rising Asian power and the former American colony. Grievances stem from a proxy war the two nations are currently fighting over a largely uninhabitable stretch of islands and coral reefs in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is a profitable region that is only expected to become more profitable in the next couple of decades. Already, it is home to intensive fishing interests and serves as the corridor for Asia’s massive shipping industry.  Even more vital to Chinese interests are the rumored vast oil and natural gas reserves in the region.

There are at least five nations currently claiming the Spratly Islands, a group of more than 750 islands in the South China Sea, which are rumored to hold massive fuel reserves. These claims are often overlapping and have been a source of rife between Southeast Asian nations and their larger neighbor to the north. The Philippines’ claims are based on the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which established a 200-mile exclusive economic zone off the shores of all signatories. According to the treaty, the coastal nation has exclusive rights over the exploitation of all natural resources that fall within this 200-mile area.

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Several countries claim this group of islands in the South China Sea [Image: UNCLOS and CIA]

The Chinese base their claim to the South China Sea on dated maps from dynastic China. However, the real problem is whether each state can actually enforce its claims.

Thus far, China’s strategy has been to intimidate its weaker competitors into slowly giving up more and more territory. Once China gains a territorial concession, it quickly erects a base or settlement to solidify its gains. While this strategy is slow in moving, it is nearly impossible to dislodge the Chinese presence once established. By forcing its rivals to accept gradual concessions, China is playing a long term game to secure its resource needs. In the context of the intense geopolitics of the region, it is not surprising that the Chinese stiffed the Philippines humanitarian aid.

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Chinese outpost built on a reef in the South China Sea [New York Times Magazine]

U.S. Reaction

For the United States, the Chinese strategy of slow attrition for territorial gains has proven hard to circumvent. To a certain extent, the United States has recognized the threat that China poses to its political and economic interests in East Asia and has made some efforts aimed at rebalancing its forces with a greater focus on the Pacific. In 2011, the Obama Administration signaled that the U.S. would make a strategic pivot toward Asia.

Besides increasing the number of Marines stationed in Darwin, Australia, the “Asia Pivot” will increase the percentage of U.S. Naval forces in the region to 60 percent of its total force.

The Asia Pivot is a good start to balancing Chinese aggression, but it is not enough. Thus far, China has been undeterred by the increase of U.S. troops and has routinely ignored agreements deriving from U.S.-backed negotiations.

Further steps are necessary. First, the United States should offer stronger military support to its longtime allies. The United States needs to prove to its allies that it is willing to move beyond demonstrations of force and actually enforce international law. Second, the United States should reach a public consensus on territorial disputes with its Southeast Asian allies, in order to provide a united front against Chinese aggression.  A united front would be more effective in blocking Chinese expansion, rather than piecemeal efforts by individual nations over individual islands.

Lastly, the U.S. can prove its commitment to Southeast Asia by continuing to take the lead in disaster relief and humanitarian efforts in the region. Humanitarian efforts only increase American soft power and improve its image in a strategically important region.

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