After Stingy Aid to Typhoon Victims, China Tries Damage Control

A 17-member disaster relief team from the China Red Cross prepares to depart for the Philippines, in Beijing, on Nov. 20 Photograph by Ng Han Guan/AP Photo

With a relief team finally on its way to the Philippines, China is trying to control the damage from its petty response to the Typhoon Haiyan tragedy.

The Chinese group is getting there late because of political differences between the two governments. The storm may have killed thousands of people and brought to a halt a large swath of China’s neighbor to the south, but since the world’s new economic giant is feuding with the Philippines about disputed islands in the South China Sea, the leadership in Beijing decided to take advantage of a humanitarian catastrophe to teach President Benigno Aquino who’s boss.

China initially offered a paltry $100,000 in aid and, after an international outcry, raised that figure to $1.6 million. It’s as if Dr. Evil decided to go into the disaster-relief business: “One point six million dollars!” Hence the headlines worldwide expressing outrage that China, the world’s second-largest economy, was offering less money than do-it-yourself furniture maker Ikea.

Not the ideal message for a country trying to persuade its neighbors of its trustworthiness. China’s ham-fisted response to Haiyan is a welcome gift for Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, who has spent much of his first year in office touring countries in the region that have good reason to worry about China’s intentions.

That’s probably why China’s officials and media are trying to change the narrative. Chinese relief workers are on their way to the Philippines now, China’s Foreign Ministry announced today—a week and a half after Haiyan hit. But not to worry, some Chinese blankets and tents started arriving on Monday and Tuesday. “China will also send a medical boat Peace Ark, which belongs to the Chinese navy, to the Philippines,” the Xinhua news agency reported today. “The boat, which has good medical rescue capability and maneuverability, will depart soon.”

Even as the Chinese relief effort finally gets underway, there’s a new message: China is actually the victim here, hurt by Philippine bureaucrats. According to Xinhua, China was slow because the Philippine government hadn’t given its blessing. Indeed, the state-run news agency reported yesterday the emergency medical team was “ready to go” and would “depart for the disaster areas immediately, once China gets permission from the Philippines.”

Turns out it’s not just the Philippines that undermined China: Americans and Japanese also proved all too eager to show up the Chinese in their own backyard. “Haiyan, the strongest typhoon to make landfall in recorded history, has killed over 3,976 people in the Philippines,” commentator Guan Yan wrote in yesterday’s Global Times, the tabloid affiliated with the People’s Daily. “But from the start, the size of the rescue package sent to Haiyan victims has been seen as a race.”

So yes, the Americans offered more than $20 million, and the Japanese were generous, too, but it’s not fair to say China’s response was miserly. “China’s aid to the Philippines was criticized as ‘meager’ and not matching its economic power,” Guan Yan continues. “In the future, China will face increasing pressure to take more responsibilities in regional affairs. For both the government and the public, there is a learning curve.”

In other words, China is new to the whole be-a-responsible-global-player business. Next typhoon, maybe the country will get it right.

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