Guest Column

Uncle Sam Returns to the Philippines

By A. Lin Nenmann 13 November 2013

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 United States 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 United States 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.

The Marines landed shortly after the disaster with Kennedy leading an advance contingent that will quickly grow.

“Everything’s destroyed,” 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 [ask].”

The United States’ immediate response on top of the Marines’ arrival includes emergency shelter and hygiene materials from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), 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 United States announced that the USS George Washington aircraft carrier and its support fleet, numbering 7,000 sailors, had 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 $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 $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 ($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.”

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