As soon as Navy pilot Matthew Stafford puts his helicopter down in the Philippine village of Borongan, he is rushed by dozens of local men who form a line to unload the supplies and water he has flown in from the mothership, the USS George Washington aircraft carrier. Children swarm him as he hands out sweets.
On the Philippine islands of Leyte and Samar that were shattered by Typhoon Haiyan, there is no doubt about it: the US military has been a godsend.
“It is awesome to see this,” one villager says. “They are saving us.”
However, while US military support can be critical when disasters like Haiyan strike, staging massive humanitarian relief missions for allies in need is not just about being a good neighbor. They can be a strategic and publicity goldmine for US troops, whose presence in Asia is not always portrayed in such a favorable light — and a powerful warning to countries that are not on board.
“These disasters are not unique only to the Philippines. It will send a signal to all of Southeast Asia, to Asia, that the US is serious about its presence here,” Philippine political analyst Ramon Casiple said. “It’s easy to translate this capability for disaster handling into handling warfare. This is the new orientation of the task forces.”
From the military perspective, humanitarian missions like the ongoing Operation Damayan in the Philippines offer concrete benefits — the chance to operate in far-flung places, build military-to-military alliances and get realistic training — that they may later apply to their primary mission, which will always be fighting and winning wars.
“Crisis response planning is a skill set for the military, so when you have an opportunity to execute crisis response, it’s good for your planning team,” said Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery, who commands the George Washington strike group, stationed offshore in the Gulf of Leyte. “So, sure, there is a benefit there, but in reality, the reason we do this mission is because in the Navy’s list of missions, this is one of the significant efforts we plan for.”
In the week since the disaster, the Philippines has started to receive support from military forces around the region. Taiwan, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea have sent aircraft or personnel, and more support is expected soon from Brunei, Britain, New Zealand and Thailand. However, none has come close to matching the US.
Equally importantly, the US’ regional rival China has not sent any military personnel, and contributed relatively tiny financial aid.
“This is being done in a big way that highlights the meager response of China — that’s the politics there. They’re saying China is not actually your friend in the region,” Casiple said.
“I’m sure China is watching and assessing,” he said.
China announced on Sunday it is ready to send rescue and medical teams to the Philippines, but did not say when the teams would depart.
For US allies like the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand and to some extent Indonesia, it is an affirmation of the US commitment.
For others — Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, who are more closely aligned with China — he said the mission is a not-so-subtle message that the US remains the biggest power in the region.
Within hours of the typhoon, US Marines were on their way from their bases in Japan to assess the damage and plan out their response. Within days, the George Washington was pulling out of Hong Kong to lead its half-dozen ship battle group to the Gulf of Leyte. By the time they arrived, the US Air Force was already in action.