Dramatic US Humanitarian Effort in Philippines Aids Asia ‘Pivot’

By Manuel Mogato & Aubrey Belford 19 November 2013

MANILA/TACLOBAN, Philippines — The US military’s response to the devastation wrought by one of the world’s most powerful typhoons has been breathtaking.

About 50 US ships and aircraft have been mobilized in the disaster zone, including 10 C-130 transport planes, 12 V-22 Ospreys and 14 Seahawk helicopters air-dropping supplies from an aircraft carrier.

The accelerating relief efforts underscore a fast-expanding US-Philippine military alliance that could grow even stronger in the wake of the catastrophe as the United States pursues its “pivot” toward Asia.

As US ships deliver food, water and medicine, they are also delivering goodwill that could ease the way for the United States to strengthen its often-controversial military presence in one of Southeast Asia’s most strategic countries.

“It is not that the United States used assistance to promote rebalancing, but that rebalancing enabled the US to respond so decisively,” said Asia security expert Carl Thayer.

The Philippines is one of Washington’s closest allies in Asia and a crucial partner in President Barack Obama’s strategy to rebalance US military forces toward the region to counter the rising influence of China.

The United States sent the nuclear-powered USS George Washington aircraft carrier to lead relief efforts after Typhoon Haiyan killed at least 3,900 people on Nov. 8, leaving many survivors dazed and without food and water for days.

By coincidence, and heavy in symbolism, the carrier is moored off the coast near where US General Douglas MacArthur’s forces landed on Oct. 20, 1944, in one of the biggest Allied victories, fulfilling his vow “I shall return.”

The US forces are also using an airfield in Guiuan, one of the worst-hit towns in Eastern Samar province, that was a major base during World War II and then abandoned.

Now US helicopter crews dump tarpaulins and stacks of food aid, dishing out a round of high-fives to grateful villagers before jumping back into their helicopter and taking off for the next drop.

On Monday, the United States announced an additional US$10 million in aid, bringing the total US humanitarian aid to more than $37 million.

The United States and the Philippines are in the middle of negotiations to increase a rotational presence of US forces in the country, deploying aircraft, ships, supplies and troops for humanitarian and maritime security operations.

The widening military cooperation, which includes the use of bases for temporary deployment, signals rapidly warming security relations after Manila closed big US military bases that had operated for decades in 1992. Manila later allowed the return of American troops for training and joint exercises. The new agreement is expected to expand these activities.

A senior Philippine officer said some of the equipment the United States provided had been in place before the typhoon struck.

“But, in the future, we’ll be better prepared to deal with disasters if our two governments signed the framework agreement on enhanced defense cooperation and increased presence,” he said.

“The humanitarian cooperation we’re seeing between the Philippines and the United States makes the new agreement more relevant.”

China’s response to the disaster was slow off the mark and, some would say, less than generous. The world’s second-largest economy initially announced it was giving $200,000 and then raised that by $1.64 million. Only on Sunday, more than a week after the storm struck, did it say it was ready to send rescue and medical teams.

Japan has sent three ships with trucks and engineering equipment, while Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore have sent C-130s.

China and the Philippines are locked in a bitter dispute over islands in the South China Sea and many Chinese took to Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, to say the Philippines should not be given anything in aid.

“China has been found wanting in [humanitarian aid] capacity in 2004 and again in 2013,” Thayer said, referring to the 2004 Asian tsunami. “If one were looking at a connection between political motivations and humanitarian assistance, Beijing would be a good place to start.”

Brigadier General Paul Kennedy, commander of Third Marine Expeditionary Brigade, commanding the US operation, said there was no plan for a permanent presence in the Philippines.

“I’ve been coming here for 28 years training, much of it done over disasters, obviously,” he said. “It’s already a tacit agreement that when a disaster happens, we’ll do this.

“The United States isn’t going to take advantage of the crisis to increase its footprint. It would be taking advantage of someone’s appreciation.”

Asked how long the US military presence would last in Guiuan, he said: “We’ll base it on the demand from the Philippine side.”

Patrick Cronin, an Asia-Pacific security expert at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said the United States remained focused on helping survivors of the storm.

“America’s response includes our military, civilian disaster and foreign experts, and non-governmental organization, all pulling together to minimize misery and catalyze reconstruction,” he said.

“The emergency response opens an opportunity to move forward with long-discussed plans for a modest US rotational military presence in the Philippines.”