Typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest storms ever seen, hit the Philippines. Thousands have been reported dead, and many hundreds of thousands more have been displaced. Millions of dollars in aid have poured in from around the world. However, controversy has been made of China’s response to the crisis. China has given a relatively tiny amount of aid to its close neighbour. It initially pledged $200,000 in aid, which, for scale, is over $100,000 less than Mount Allison students raised for various charities in 2012. China has since increased that value to about $2 million to appease its critics. This new amount still pales in comparison to the contributions made by much smaller countries, and is even exceeded by the charitable donation from Ikea.
Critics have accused China of withholding aid to the Philippines for political reasons, given that the two nations are currently engaged in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Many argue that humanitarianism should transcend political rivalries, and that China is wrong to have let its own agenda interfere with helping those in need. While I agree that China’s level of aid is absolutely unacceptable, I do not think that countries should be expected to act in a manner inconsistent with their national priorities. Instead, I believe that China’s inadequate contribution is symptomatic of deeper regional problems.
Both Canada and the United States have a long history of aligning their aid with national interest. The most storied example of this is the Marshall Plan, in which the US provided massive aid to Europe in order to stem the spread of Soviet Communism. Canada has also historically given aid intended to promote Canadian interests. Fostering Canadian economic growth has become a core goal of the Canadian International Development Agency, which has recently been folded into the Department of Foreign Affairs, the organization tasked with serving Canadian interests abroad.
The politicization of foreign aid is impossible to avoid. Countries will always tend to allocate their limited resources to initiatives that will build alliances, or improve the welfare of their own citizens. Selfless aid, while admirable, should not be considered the norm. Thus, a county’s aid policy should be seen as a reflection of its national priorities. This means that the issue with China’s Haiyan aid package is not that China is choosing to shape its foreign aid policy based on its national interest. The issue is with how China defines its national interest in the first place.
China’s frugal Haiyan policy has communicated that it is more interested in coercion and intimidation than confidence building. China has shown that it prioritizes its territorial claims over good relations with its neighbours. This skewed prioritization will lead to more undesirable outcomes for China, and is the underlying cause of China’s negligible aid package to the Philippines. A shift in China’s aid policy, while clearly necessary, should not be predicated on a reevaluation of how nations rationalize their foreign aid distribution. Instead, any shift in China’s foreign aid policy should arise naturally from a reshuffling of its broader foreign policy priorities in its near abroad, with a strong emphasis on building good relationships with its neighbours. A new set of Chinese foreign policy strategies in southeast Asia could ease regional rivalries, and underpin more humane foreign aid policy in the future.