China fails the tsunami test

Australian soldier distributes clean water to Acehnese residents in Banda Aceh
An Australian soldier distributes clean water in Indonesia's provincial capital of Banda Aceh on Tuesday.Romeo Ranoco / Reuters

As the ships, aircraft and crews of the Australian, New Zealand, Indonesian and Indian navies rushed to the aid of a region scoured by a tsunami, joining a large American flotilla and various British, Thai, Japanese and Malaysian units, the Chinese fleet remained in port.

In fact, the only significant statement from China’s defense ministry in the days following the tsunami was a Dec. 27 announcement that China and Russia would hold major air and naval war games later this year.

News reports of that announcement focused on Russia’s motives – it was speculated that this was Moscow’s way of showing how irritated Russia was that its tampering with Ukraine’s election had been thwarted by Western pressure. Yet the tin ear China showed for the suffering of its neighbors is even more important. At a time when tens of thousands in its neighborhood were at risk of starvation, dehydration and disease, China’s focus was right where it has been for centuries: China.

No hands on deck

With the exception of the American 7th Fleet, based in Japan, China maintains the largest amphibious force in the region, a force with precisely the kind of ships desperately needed in parts of the region rendered inaccessible by the battering waves. The newest and heaviest of these vessels, the 11 ships of the Yuting class, are capable of delivering large amounts of aid to the ragged shorelines now occupying the place where port facilities once sat. Designed for a Taiwan invasion scenario, they also can produce enough fresh water each day to keep a medium-sized city alive. Even little Singapore dispatched two smaller landing vessels to the devastated region.

So why are the Chinese still at their moorings?

The answer is complicated by China’s historic policy of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of its neighbors, and in some places — India, in particular — by historic suspicions and resentments built up over centuries of rivalry. But China's low profile also speaks volumes about the gap between its rhetoric, which stresses its coming of age as a great power in Asia, and the reality of China’s inward-oriented foreign policy.

"They don't have experience in doing this kind of thing, unlike the U.S., which just pushes a few of the right buttons and the relief effort starts," says William Turcotte, professor emiritas at the U.S. Naval War College. "But they have the sea-lift - they certainly could help. Maybe this will embarrass them into doing something next time."

Playing possum

Like many countries, China committed money to tsunami relief -- $63 million, carefully trumping the $50 million pledged by its diminutive rival, Taiwan. Beijing also sent a number of search and rescue teams to the region and has encouraged private giving. (In contrast, Japan’s $500 million was the top pledge by any country until Wednesday, when Australia's $764 and Germany's $674 leapfrogged it.

To be sure, China's $63 million donation is welcomed, as is any aid from any country. But China is not just any country, particularly not in East and Southeast Asia, where its break-neck economic growth and maturing military might cast a large and long shadow.

With the United States deeply distracted in the Middle East, China has moved, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so, to fill what many see as a regional leadership void.

Its neighbors, once deeply suspicious of its designs, increasingly feel comfortable looking to Beijing for economic leadership and even for cues on how to vote on such issues as the Iraq War at the United Nations. China's own behavior has encouraged its neighbors to expect more of it in times like these.

Flexing muscles - selectively

China’s influence in many of these countries, including Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, is magnified by highly successful ethnic Chinese minority communities that took roots centuries ago in many countries around the region.

In some ways, the tsunami disaster came at a particularly inconvenient time for Beijing. Over the past two months, Beijing has made bold moves, given its inward looking history, to assume the helm of the world’s most dynamic region.

In November, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a group once heavily inclined toward Washington and to which China does not even belong, asked China to organize and lead a new regional trading bloc – a group that could, potentially, dwarf both the EU and NAFTA is its commercial size.  Not coincidentally, it is ASEAN which will host the Thursday summit of donor nations to discuss the tsunami tragedy.

The announcement of joint exercises with Russia's military, too, was a departure for China, which fought a short, violent border war with the Soviet Union in 1969 and in the past has only flirted with a Sino-Russian alliance.

At the same time, the Chinese government has been trying to avoid calls for a reappraisal of its status as a major recipient of international aid and interest free development loans from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other NGOs. As China has grown into the seventh largest economy in the world, its neighbors, especially Japan, which is the leading foreign investor in China, have called for China to “graduate” from aid recipient to donor nation.

The other rising power

Contrast China’s stance on the tsunami with that of India, itself seriously affected, and Beijing’s behavior looks even less impressive.

Within hours of the disaster, India – China’s near equal in terms of population and economic growth – told the world it did not need disaster relief for the time being, suggesting such money be diverted to poorer nations.

What’s more, India dispatched navy ships and cargo aircraft to its devastated cousins in Sri Lanka, immediately staking a claim for itself in the “core” group of donor nations.

Some Americans, and some in the region, may think it just as well that China remains a one-dimensional player on the world scene, a kind of gigantic idiot savant with a monster economy but no desire to engage in any foreign affairs issue that won’t be a direct benefit to it. That is an understandable sentiment, given the potential for China to be a disruptive, authoritarian force in world.

But coaxing China out of the somewhat paranoid shell through which it has viewed the world for centuries is in the longer term interest of the United States and Asia. Had China, on Dec. 27, announced that its naval transports planned joint relief operations with Japan or the U.S. fleet instead of war games with Russia, an important line would have been crossed. Unfortunately, for China, Asia and the world, Beijing just can’t see the logic – yet.

Michael Moran's Brave New World column appears weekly on