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                                                                                                                           Asean Affairs November 15, 2013  


We Are All Filipinos: U.S. Response to Typhoon Haiyan Is Foundational

By Ernest Bower (@BowerCSIS), Senior Adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies, and Murray Hiebert (@MurrayHiebert1), Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies, CSIS

This week, we are all Filipinos. Bonding together in response to the deadly storm that ravaged the Philippines, we are unified in sharing the pain of our brothers and sisters and committed to helping respond, so that those affected can recover and resume their lives. A comprehensive and heartfelt response from the United States—our government, our people, and our companies—is foundational to enhancing our alliance with the Philippines and our bond with its people.

In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, the deadly typhoon that ravaged the central Philippines on November 8 and destroyed much of that part of the country, the United States has responded with considerable haste and generosity to the disaster’s victims. As news of the extent of devastation broke, U.S. leaders and government agencies swiftly coordinated to assist with emergency disaster relief on the ground.

U.S. relief agencies, independent of the government, swept into action, and Americans have responded with heartfelt support, contributing to the relief effort. Still, as the Philippines moves beyond the emergency phase in the days ahead, the United States will need to do even more to provide support for and build goodwill in a nation reeling from one of the deadliest calamities in its history.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier USS George Washington to the Philippines to step up relief efforts in some of the most ravaged areas. The carrier, which transports 5,000 sailors and more than 80 aircraft, has medical facilities, and can convert seawater into drinking water, arrived in the Philippines on November 13. Its helicopters will drop emergency water and food supplies into areas cut off from the outside world when the typhoon destroyed roads, bridges, and communication links.

Separately, a U.S. disaster assistance response team was among the first international groups to reach some of the hardest-hit provinces. Prior to the arrival of the U.S. aircraft carrier, 90 U.S. Marines were on the ground, cooperating with the Philippine air force to fly in food and drinking water to the city of Tacloban, ground zero for the storm, on C-130 transport planes. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it was making $20 million available for immediate humanitarian needs, including clean water, health care, and sanitation.

The Navy’s sending of the aircraft carrier is reminiscent of 2004, when the United States deployed the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of Aceh province in Indonesia in response to the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. The carrier’s helicopters saved thousands of lives and helped contribute to the gradual warming of military-to-military ties between the two countries. Before that, bilateral defense ties had been in the deep freeze since Indonesian troops carried out brutal human rights violations during East Timor’s move toward independence in 1999.

It is too early to speculate what impact the current U.S. military relief effort will have on longer-term U.S.-Philippines military ties. The relationship went into a tailspin in 1991, when the Philippine government ordered U.S. naval forces to leave the Subic Bay military base, which the United States had used for decades. Military relations gradually improved after 2002 as U.S. troops began to work with the Philippine army in fighting insurgent groups, particularly the Abu Sayyaf group linked to al Qaeda.

Military ties have warmed further since 2009, when China became more assertive in making its robust South China Sea territorial claims, some of which overlap with those of the Philippines. In recent years, the United States has stepped up joint military exercises and ship visits in an effort to boost the Philippines’ capacity in maritime security and maritime domain awareness.

Natural disasters on the scale of Haiyan highlight the indispensable role of U.S. security presence in the Western Pacific and the strategic value of U.S. bases in Japan for disaster relief and humanitarian assistance purposes. Both the first-responder U.S. Marines contingent and the aircraft carrier George Washington that were deployed to the Philippines are based in nearby Japan.

Over the past few months, the United States and Philippines have been negotiating terms for expanded access for the U.S. military throughout the archipelago. Negotiations hit an impasse in early November over the issue of access, or lack thereof, of the Philippine armed forces to U.S. bases. Nonetheless, Philippine defense secretary Voltaire Gazmin said he remained optimistic that the outstanding issues would be resolved.

Additionally, both the United States and the Philippines should understand that the very real humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities under way should be expanded within the context of negotiations to boost military and security cooperation. The United States needs to build a bond of trust and support not only with the Philippine government, but also with the Philippine people, communities, and institutions to ensure that the agreements reached will be dynamic and sustainable.

There are a number of additional steps and initiatives the United States could take to bolster support for its longstanding Southeast Asian ally. For starters, Vice President Joe Biden should consider extending his visits to Japan, Korea, and China in early December to include a stop in the Philippines, which is relatively nearby.

Separately, Secretary of State John Kerry, who was due to visit Manila in October, should quickly reschedule his trip to show support for the Philippines in its time of need. Kerry was due to stop in the Philippines as a stand-in for President Barack Obama after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, but postponed the trip when an earlier typhoon threatened the island nation.

In addition, the U.S. Senate should speed up confirmation of Philip Goldberg as ambassador to the Philippines to ensure that the United States has the strongest possible team in Manila to respond to the typhoon. Goldberg was cleared by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on October 31 and is now waiting for a vote in the full Senate.

Currently, only four Philippine cities with honest governments were chosen by USAID for first-responder training in preparation for handling future disasters. The importance of expanding this training to other cities, particularly local administrations that are well run and transparent, is critical. This, however, would require additional funding, at a time when the United States is facing general budget constraints. Sadly, the city of Tacloban, which was ravaged by the super-storm, is not renowned for being transparent or particularly well run.

In the end, Washington needs to develop a strategy to link its current relief efforts to building stronger long-term political-security, trade and investment, and people-to-people ties with the Philippines. U.S.-Philippine relations have improved dramatically during the past three years, and the United States now has a chance to demonstrate its support for and commitment to the Philippines in the months ahead. The mind-set for this initiative in the immediate term needs to be all-embracing: we are all Filipinos.

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