America the Generous

After Typhoon Haiyan swept through the Philippines this month, Beijing announced a contribution to Manila of $100,000. Derided almost everywhere for its stinginess, China then reconsidered. Beijing then said it would make a subsequent gift of $1.64 million and extended the offer of rescue and medical assistance teams.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, pledged $20 million in emergency aid to the ravaged island nation and immediately sent the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier, and its escort vessels, which are now delivering relief supplies to the victims of what may be history’s most powerful hurricane to make landfall.

Is America generous? The New York Times, in anarticle late last week titled “Asia Rivalries Play Role in Aid of the Philippines,” suggests that American humanitarian assistance to that Southeast Asian nation can be largely explained by a geopolitical struggle with China. “The outpouring of foreign assistance for the hundreds of thousands left homeless and hungry by Typhoon Haiyan is shaping up to be a monumental show of international largess—and a not-so-subtle dose of one-upmanship directed at the region’s fastest-rising power, China,” writes Andrew Jacobs. Jacobs then goes on to talk about “a showcase for the soft-power contest in Asia” and “American efforts to reassert its influence in the region.”

This narrative has cropped up a lot recently. “You don’t need to be a crotchety old cynic like me to know that the US aid pouring into the Philippines is not entirely motivated by altruism,” writes theTelegraph’s Rob Crilly, sounding as if he was working for the left-leaning Guardian instead.

This month marks the end of the second year of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, a renewed focus on the region viewed by many as a challenge to Beijing. There are obvious strategic implications of the American aid to Manila—China and the Philippines are in the middle of a multi-year spat over sovereignty of outcroppings in the South China Sea—and so analysts have drawn what looks like the obvious conclusion: President Obama is trying to score geopolitical points against Beijing.

Does American aid have geopolitical implications? Most certainly. Is Washington participating in rescue efforts to make Beijing look bad in a competition that spans East Asia? Undoubtedly not, if facts and history matter.

Critics miss two obvious points. First, pivot or no pivot, the centerpiece of this administration’s East Asia policy is the integration of China into the international system. The much-publicized pivot is merely intended to protect allies and friends in the region and to coax the Chinese to adopt less-belligerent policies. Washington, during this and the two previous administrations, has almost never missed an opportunity to work with China.

Second, the US provides humanitarian assistance primarily because Americans believe that is the right thing to do. Although American assistance to the Philippines is substantial, it is so far a drop in the bucket compared to what Washington provided nations in the region for months after the December 2004 tsunami. In 2004 and 2005, the Bush administration essentially ignored East Asia—and to the extent it had a policy it was to work with China to make it a partner both in the War on Terror and the efforts to “denuclearize” North Korea. Therefore, the aid then was definitely not a tactic employed in a struggle, “soft power” or otherwise, with Beijing.

The point here is not that America is generous—it is, of course—but that democracies generally place great importance on helping humanity. Authoritarian regimes don’t share that ingrained sense of obligation, which is why Beijing’s first instinct was to give a gift that was just about as small as it could be.

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