Heavy Lift in Leyte

Just over a month ago, US President Barack Obama skipped the APEC summit in Bali and the Asean summit in Brunei, leaving the stage clear for China’s President Xi Jinping to make nice and sign deals, while editorial writers pondered over the declining power of the United States.

It seemed to some that Obama’s decision to stay home and deal with the political fallout from the loony Republican Party attempt to shut down the US government was a symptom of America’s malaise and its inability to take seriously its commitments in Asia. Symbolically, China scored a major diplomatic victory and many observers were left wondering if the US could stay the course in Asia.

Then came heavy lift. When Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda battered the central Philippines last week, leaving behind almost unimaginable levels of destruction on Leyte and Samar islands, the US did what no Asian power could do: send in the Marines. The arrival of US Marines early in the crisis sent a reassuring message that help was on the way – and provided Washington with a public relations coup that is likely to resonate for years in the region.

The two summits seem very far away when viewed through the prism of the tragedy in the Philippines, and China’s “victory” seems almost irrelevant.

Beijing, which has been locked in a bitter dispute with Manila over a number of territorial claims in the South China Sea, pledged $100,000, just a tenth of what Malaysia alone offered. China, for all its rising power, still cannot get this kind of diplomacy right. Did a Chinese leader stand up and say it was time to put aside differences in order to help the people of Leyte and Samar? Despite friendly regional summits and state visits, China’s soft power is still a work in its infancy. China still seems preoccupied with expanding its maritime borders into Southeast Asia and bullying its neighbors, and its immediate response to the typhoon underscored that impression. No wonder much of the region remains wary of Beijing.

Beyond that, even if it wanted to, China does not yet have the capacity to project power into a disaster zone on anywhere near the scale offered by the US. “China has been developing its human assistance and disaster relief capabilities over the past decade,” Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, told the Financial Times. “However, at present it is not even close to matching the … capabilities of the United States.”

In short, in a crisis like this typhoon, the US military has no equal, and that is a lesson not likely to be lost on Southeast Asians.

This week’s initial performance by the Philippine government itself seemed tragically inept. It simply could not get adequate forces on the ground to quickly organize a systematic relief effort. The country took a media beating for not being able to pick up dead bodies, search for survivors or distribute supplies properly. For all the battering the country takes from typhoons, it seemed that Manila had not considered the possibility that local governments might be wiped out by the massive storm and the national government was unable to respond quickly and effectively beyond the competent but limited efforts of its own armed forces.

Asean itself was hardly a major presence. Its Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management, which was set up in the aftermath of the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in 2010, issued press releases saying it was coordinating pledges of aid by several neighboring countries, but the center has no real crisis management capability of its own. And Asean itself is a long way from being able to respond in anything but a peripheral way to a major disaster.

The scenes of complete destruction and suffering in Leyte were a potent reminder of why Southeast Asia itself needs to be able to respond more completely to a crisis in the neighborhood. To be sure, individual countries have experience handling earthquakes, typhoons, volcanoes and tsunamis, but major full-scale response is still sadly lacking. With global warming apparently a major factor in these super storms, we can expect more such calamities in coming years and the region needs to be able to respond as a community.

For now, whether Obama joined the group photo at APEC or not is irrelevant when it comes to projecting real power. Having the US Pacific Fleet in the region is a graphic reminder that the US remains the only Pacific country with the kind of heavy-lift capability to move massive amounts of relief goods quickly.

This is one reason why the US “pivot” to Asia is seen as a good thing in many regional capitals. The Marines brought in the radar and lights to get the demolished Tacloban airport running, they deployed large cargo aircraft, carried thousands of kilos of supplies, helped evacuate victims and brought in eight search and rescue Osprey rotor wing aircraft that can land in areas without runways. In some cases, the Marines were the first outsiders to reach isolated towns and villages.

Then on Thursday, the USS George Washington aircraft carrier strike group arrived with 5,000 sailors and more than 80 helicopters. As a similar aircraft carrier did after the 2004 tsunami in northern Sumatra, the battle group will serve as a mobile hospital and massive desalination plant for people still crying out for fresh water. Its helicopters will seek out villages that remain cut off. Working alongside the Philippine military, US sailors and Marines will be a reassuring presence for weeks or even months to come; they will almost certainly play a key role in early rebuilding efforts along with other agencies and NGOs.

China may have been hoping that the Philippines – and the rest of Asean – would eventually see the futility of trying to counter its claims in the South China Sea, but reports of America’s decline have been greatly exaggerated.

In Leyte this week, American power was a life saver. That can go a lot farther than photo ops and handshakes at a summit meeting.

(A. Lin Neumann is the publisher of Strategic Review. This article originally appeared in the Edge Review, a weekly on-line magazine on Southeast Asian news, politics and business.)