Aid for Philippines brings security shifts
24 Jan 2014|
Families from Ormoc affected by Typhoon Haiyan exit an MC-130 Combat Talon II from 1st Special Operation Squadron (1 SOS) after  being transported as part of Operation Damayan

International aid for the Philippines after last November’s devastating typhoon has had some security consequences. Changes have occurred in the Philippines’ relations with the United States, with Japan, with China, with Hong Kong and with Taiwan. Typhoon Haiyan (Typhoon Yolanda to the Filipinos) killed perhaps more than 6000 people and made about 4.4 million homeless.

Possibly the most significant effect over aid has involved the United States. The disaster overwhelmed the Philippines’ relief and military services. The first substantial aid came from the United States. Once the colonial power in the Philippines, the US was quick and generous. It sent marines from Okinawa. Helicopters, water plants and other equipment were made available from the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier.

Before the typhoon, the US had been trying to persuade the Philippines to again accept the stationing of US troops in the country. The last US troops left the Philippines in 1992 and all American military bases were closed.  Although the US-Philippines mutual security agreement of 1951 remained intact, and  reaffirmed in 2011, the proposal for US troops to be stationed within the Philippines was meeting some opposition, mainly on the ground that it was said to infringe Philippines sovereignty.

The ready US response to the Philippines’ disaster appears to have changed perceptions. The US is now looked on as a power that offers help and hope.

The result is that US troops will be stationed within the Philippines. There’s a certain convenience in this for the US because it didn’t want to say outright that it wanted troops in the Philippines as part of the bulwark against China. Now the troops can be said to be stationed there partly for humanitarian aid reasons.

There might also be a payoff for jointly backed counter-terrorism efforts. From 2002 the US has given support to the Philippines Light Reaction Battalion, the country’s main counter-terrorism force. The size of this force was increased after the disaster.

On the other hand, China’s immediate response to the Philippines typhoon relief effort was to give $US100,000, a sum low enough for commentators to regard it as a sign of Beijing’s displeasure with Manila over both the islands dispute between them and the  Philippines has mounted a legal case against China’s nine-dash line claiming territories in the South China Sea, using the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China later increased its aid substantially and offered its floating hospital to help the victims of the typhoon. But China’s territorial claims and the response of the Philippines haven’t been put on hold: China has established new rules for fishing and the Philippines has just announced that it will provide navy escorts for Filipino fishermen.

Taiwan also has a dispute with the Philippines over claims to islands and this grew worse after a Philippines patrol boat shot and killed a Taiwanese fisherman in May last year. Taiwan’s response to the Philippines’ tragedy has nevertheless been generous. Hong Kong has similarly shown itself generous despite competing claims to islands between it and the Philippines.

One of the most remarkable changes the typhoon and the aid offers have brought to Southeast and east Asia has been between Japan’s military and the Philippines. No Japanese soldier had been allowed in the Philippines since 1945. Japanese occupation of the Philippines from 1942 to 1945 during World War 2 left bitter memories. But after Japan showed itself generous in aid after the typhoon, Japanese soldiers were welcomed as they took part in the international relief effort.

I’m not arguing here that security reasons were the motivation for aid from those donors mentioned. In fact, the US has been careful not to be seen as exploiting the situation. Nor am I attempting to make these donors more significant than others. The aid effort is coming from a very large number of countries, including Australia and New Zealand.

What I’m suggesting is that there have been some shifts in the security landscape in East Asia. The US has got an arrangement to rotate troops through the Philippines. Japanese troops are working with others within the Philippines, a development that wouldn’t have been possible three months ago.

It’s too early to make any generalisations about the effect on the US-China balance in Asia. The changes, significant as they are, could prove ephemeral. But the elements of an east Asian security arrangement are there. Its final shape, and whom it best suits, remain to be seen.

Stuart McMillan is an adjunct senior fellow in the school of social and political sciences at the University of Canterbury. Image courtesy of US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel M. Young via Flickr user cmccain202dc.