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Column: Making sense of China's meager typhoon aid

A man smiles as he carries a sack of relief goods while others rush for their share during a relief distribution after super typhoon Haiyan
A man smiles as he carries a sack of relief goods while others rush for their share during a relief distribution after super typhoon Haiyan

By Ian Bremmer

Faced with a devastating typhoon a mere 700 miles away, Chinese President Xi Jinping this week pledged financial support for the Philippines, as did nearly every other industrialized nation. Australia offered $30 million; the Europeans $11 million; the United Arab Emirates promised $10 million. China offered $100,000.

The media backlash was immediate. Within days, an embarrassed Beijing upped its pledge to $1.6 million. That's still less than a sixth of the total offered by Japan, China's main regional rival. In 2010, China overtook Japan as the second-biggest economy in the world.

What gives — or doesn't give, as the case may be? Why is an economy so big, a government so willing to invest abroad, and a country so eager to win favor in the region stiffing a neighbor in need? Because China is still a new enough power that it has no tradition of shelling out helpings of foreign aid — and because the Philippines is not China's favorite country at the moment.

And despite its successes, China is actually still a poor country. Its per capita income finally topped $9,000 last year, which ranks China about 90th in the world, depending on the exact measure. Nearly 130 million of its people live on less than $1.80 per day. With a renewed sense of urgency to tackle the country's many economic reform challenges, China has far too many pressing needs at home to be cutting big checks abroad.

At least, that's what its less-advantaged populations might well think. In 2008, nearly 70,000 people died in China when an earthquake struck outside the central Chinese city of Chengdu. And this year, nearly 200 died when a quake rattled the country's southwest. This is a country that struggles with its own domestic disaster relief.

Let's remember, too, that the Philippines is a former American colony. There are already hundreds of U.S. troops on the ground helping with the relief effort. There is also the small matter of the South China Sea, which the Chinese, as documented in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, want for themselves. For China, offering huge sums of money to a foreign community — especially one with which China has a beef over maritime borders — is a nonstarter.

It's easy to think that the typhoon relief effort is an opportunity to break that impasse. But just because that's how the U.S. uses foreign aid — as a tool with which to change public opinion abroad — doesn't mean China thinks the same way. It has virtually no infrastructure to push aid abroad — there's no equivalent of USAID or American nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity. The mandate of China's diplomatic corps is largely determined by the work its state-owned companies do abroad. China courts favor by investing, not giving.

A rising China will lead to a radically different international response to crises over time. China says it wants a de-Americanized world, and the U.S. has lately stepped back from its traditionally activist foreign policy. But where will the world turn for disaster relief when a still-poor China has become the world's largest economy?

After the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut a year ago, a quote from legendary TV kids show host Mr. Rogers went viral:

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,' I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world."

What happens when the largest economy is a country that doesn't want to do the things we expect the largest economy to do?

That's a problem that extends well beyond typhoons, earthquakes and aid.

(The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

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