Amid the horrific human tragedy, it may feel heartless to speculate about the strategic consequences of the typhoon that has taken more than 10,000 lives in the Philippines. But you can be sure such thinking will be well underway within governments all around Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific, even while they work in good faith to do something to help the afflicted.
Think back to the Indian Ocean tsunami that caused such devastation in December 2004. A notable feature of the international response was the rapid mobilisation of a coalition of four nations — the US, Japan, India and Australia — to deliver relief using military and civilian assets.
That arrangement had real geopolitical effects. It advanced military cooperation, trust and dialogue among those four powers, setting the ball rolling for a four-way security dialogue a few years later that in turn led to accusations from China that an ‘Asian NATO’ was being created to contain its rise.
Although China gained some kudos for its own civilian aid to Indonesia after the tsunami, it would not – or more probably could not – provide rapid assistance using military capabilities.
Things have changed.
Regional diplomacy is scarred by deeper security competition and mistrust than in 2004. China is also stronger. The PLA now has substantial maritime assets that can be turned towards disaster relief, such as a hospital ship (pictured) which is now used as a major platform for Chinese diplomacy, in ways the US Navy would recognise from its own long tradition. The 2004 experience may have even hastened Chinese efforts to acquire this capacity.
Moreover, what little embryonic security cooperation there is within inclusive multilateral organisations in Asia (such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus process) is focused around humanitarian assistance, because that is such a non-controversial subject.
So the next few weeks will be a big test for those institutions to live up to their promise of real cooperation.
Already, US Pacific Command is deploying forces to assist the people of the Philippines. This is not just kindness to an ally and its people. At a time when American power and purpose in Asia are being questioned, it will also be noticed as a reminder that the forward-deployed American military is still the first and fastest responder to contingencies of any kind.
What Beijing does next will be an important sign of how sensible, capable and magnanimous a power Xi Jinping’s China is going to be when it comes to regional diplomacy. After all, China’s relations with the Philippines have most recently been marked by bitter differences over maritime boundaries. Important questions now are: what assistance will China offer? What if any conditions will be attached? what will Manila accept? Can competing powers coordinate to bring succour to people in need?
And finally, what impact will all this have on the balance of influence in Asia?
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.