What Typhoon Haiyan Taught Us about China

A country not interested in a liberal, equitable, peaceful regional order—China only cares about itself.

If the Asia Pacific region ever needed a reminder of the difference between a U.S.-led order and one shaped by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the respective reactions of the two to Typhoon Haiyan is a stark one. One nation sends its navy and Marines and pledges $20 million in assistance. The other sends $100,000 in government assistance until it folds to the hectoring of the international community and increases its contribution to a still-miserly $1.6 million.

American friends and allies in the region should seriously consider the implication of this comparison. It is not an aberration.

The U.S. has made mistakes over the years. Alliances with undemocratic regimes—whether Marcos in the Philippines or Suharto in Indonesia—were often necessary in winning the Cold War. In some cases, as in Taiwan or South Korea, our embrace was a critical factor in their eventual democratization. But certainly, there were occasions when we embraced autocrats longer and more fully than necessary.

It all seems so clear now. At the time, it was not. And operating in real time, we got the details wrong on occasion. The U.S., however, has always sought to exercise a basic decency in the conduct of its foreign policy. Its electorate demands it. And in the absence of a dominant, overarching strategic context like the Cold War, the judgment calls have only gotten easier.

Take an example before Haiyan hit the Philippines. In 2008, after a cyclone hit Burma, the U.S. contributed assistance and reached out fifteen times to request permission to use its navy to maximize relief for victims. The Burmese regime refused the requests out of a combination of paranoia and its own very deeply sewn indecency. The point is that there were few countries in the world in 2008 with which the U.S. had worse relations than Burma. Yet, the U.S. went beyond the call to make the effort.

Contrast this with the PRC’s treatment of the Philippines in the midst of its 2013 disaster. Relations between the PRC and the Philippines have not been great over the last three to four years, but not nearly as bad as U.S.-Burma relations in 2008. There are no sanctions involved; the two trade with each other, maintain full diplomatic relations, interact at high levels, attend diplomatic forums together, etc. But by the regional standards of good neighborliness—particularly the PRC’s which equates rejection of its territorial claims with unfriendliness—it has been rocky. The Philippines continues to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea without apology and to persuade its friends and neighbors of its rights. Over Chinese objections, it has appealed to an international treaty—the UN Law of the Sea (to which China is also party)—to support it. By these offenses, in the eyes of the PRC leadership, it has apparently forfeited access to Chinese assistance for its disaster stricken people.

It is difficult to chalk this up to miscalculation. In the broadest sense, it is part of a trend. Why would the PRC scrap its very successful Southeast Asia “charm offensive” of the early 2000s? Why would it jeopardize relationships there for the sake of outlandish and extralegal territorial claims? Why does it risk war with Japan (and by extension its American allies) in the East China Sea by seeking to overturn a peaceful status quo that has served the region, including it, so well? Why does it continue to support and defend the most reprehensible regime on the face of the earth in North Korea? Indeed, it is a treaty ally of North Korea, and continues to sustain it economically and faithfully carry its diplomatic water.

The question that arises over the Chinese Haiyan episode is why helping a devastated neighbor is not a “no brainer” for the PRC leadership. Maybe the Chinese are not blundering at all. Maybe they’re solving an equation different than the United States. Their interest is not in becoming a contributing stake holder, along with the U.S. and its allies, in maintaining a liberal, equitable, peaceful regional order. On the contrary, its equation is very narrowly focused on finding a direct solutions to PRC’s core interests. An international order focused on all players pursuing their national interests so narrowly that there is no room for basic human decency is not an order worthy of the region. That is the lesson of Typhoon Haiyan.

Walter Lohman is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.