Weather & Natural Disasters

Asia rivalries play role in aid to the Philippines

A relief worker looks over boxes of aid on November 14, 2013 in Leyte, Philippines.
Getty Images

The American aircraft carrier George Washington has arrived, its 5,000 sailors and 80 aircraft already busy ferrying relief supplies to storm-battered survivors, and the United States has committed an initial $20 million in humanitarian assistance.

Japan is dispatching a naval force of 1,000 troops, in what officials say is that country's largest ever disaster-relief deployment. Also on the way: the Illustrious, a British aircraft carrier stocked with transport planes, medical experts and $32 million worth of aid.

The outpouring of foreign assistance for the hundreds of thousands left homeless and hungry by Typhoon Haiyan is shaping up to be a monumental show of international largess — and a not-so-subtle dose of one-upmanship directed at the region's fastest rising power, China.

(Read more: China yet to deploy 'substantial' navy to aid Philippines)

China, which has its own newly commissioned aircraft carrier and ambitions of displacing the United States, the dominant naval power in the Pacific, has been notably penurious. Beijing increased its total contribution to the relief effort to $1.5 million on Thursday after its initial pledge of $100,000 was dismissed as stingy, even by some state-backed media in the country.

Relief efforts in typhoon Haiyan aftermath

Typhoon Haiyan, described as the most devastating natural calamity to hit the Philippines in recent history, is emerging as a showcase for the soft-power contest in East Asia. The geopolitical tensions have been stoked by China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, and heightened by American efforts to reassert its influence in the region.

China has showered aid on countries it considers close friends, becoming the largest lender in Africa, rushing to help Pakistan after an earthquake in September and showing a more humanitarian side to its neighbors in Asia. But Haiyan struck hardest at the country China considers its biggest nemesis in the legal, diplomatic and sometimes military standoff over control of tiny but strategic islands in the South China Sea.

(Read more: As Philippines rebuilds, family overseas will play a key role)

Over the past year, Chinese and Philippine vessels have faced off over a collection of shoals, and the Philippines has angered China by taking the dispute to an international arbitration tribunal. It did not help that the Philippines earlier this year accepted a gift of coast guard vessels from Japan and voiced support for Tokyo's plans to strengthen its security presence in the region, or that it is in discussions with the United States about hosting more American troops there.

The challenge for China comes shortly after the United States appeared to suffer a setback of its own in the contest for Pacific influence. President Obama had to cancel a high-profile visit to the region this fall to grapple with the fiscal shutdown in the United States, an event that seemed to many in Asia to showcase American dysfunction. So when the typhoon struck an old ally, the Pentagon did not waste much time offering a robust show of assistance.

"There is no other military in the world, there is no other navy in the world, that can do what we can do," one American official said.

Michael Kulma, an expert on East Asia at the Asia Society in New York, said the Chinese reluctance to give more aid could hurt its chances to make a favorable impression in the country.

"There was an opportunity, right up front, for China to make a commitment," he said. "At the end of the day it could be that the Chinese end up giving more. But on the front end of it, they didn't stand out."

(Read more: Megastorms' awful truth: Preparation can only do so much)

At the same time, the relief efforts by the United States could give a boost to its already strong influence in the Philippines.

Despite its longtime alliance with the United States, the Philippines has been tentative over what Washington sees as the country's role in its so-called Asian Pivot, which includes efforts to increase the presence of American troops on Philippine soil.

But the American relief effort — which is receiving a lot of media attention in the country — might wear away at some of that reluctance, a hangover from the years when the Philippines was an American colony.

Typhoon Haiyan kills thousands, wipes away villages

Already, some in Tacloban said they would not mind more American boots on the ground temporarily, if it would help.

China's rise has been shifting geopolitics in the region for years. The country's ability and general willingness to invest and provide foreign aid have had a powerful effect on even some countries worried of being overwhelmed by their imposing regional neighbor — a dynamic that is likely to continue.

(Read more: Typhoon wasour 'Black Swan:' Philippine exchange)

But China's increasing power has also in some cases worked against it, including in the Philippines, where the bitter battle over a string of uninhabited islets and reefs has softened the wariness of Japan and the bitter memories of World War II, when Japan invaded.

In announcing their assistance Thursday, Japanese officials focused their remarks on the humanitarian crisis.

More from the New York Times:

Ravaged by Typhoon, Philippines Faces Threat of Serious Diseases
China Increases Aid to Philippines
Overshadowed by Tacloban, Other Devastated Philippine Cities Fear Aid Will Not Come

"The Philippines is geographically close to Japan and an important strategic partner," Japan's defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, said.

However, the Philippines was also one of the countries where Japan has been focusing its attention as it seeks to take up some of the slack left by American military budget cuts by assuming a larger role in humanitarian and other non-conflict-related military actions.

Japan has already provided the country with new coast guard vessels to better patrol its waters, including those contested with China. On Thursday, officials said Japan's military would dispatch C-130 transport aircraft and helicopters, as well as medical teams, to ferry supplies to areas that have been cut off by the disaster. Japan will also send three navy ships, led by the Ise, Japan's largest warship, a helicopter-carrying destroyer with a flight deck that makes it look like a mini aircraft carrier. Tokyo also offered $10 million in emergency aid.

(Read more: Logistical 'logjam' prevents aid from reaching typhoon-hitPhilippines)

As more countries came forward with impressive aid packages — and after days of ignoring criticism that it was offering too little aid — China on Thursday said it would increase its assistance. The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said that China had never intended the amount of assistance to remain fixed, and insisted that it had adjusted its contribution according to burgeoning needs. "An overwhelming majority of Chinese people are sympathetic with the people of the Philippines," he said.

Analysts, however, said one factor in determining the initial size of the gift was the hostility among Chinese Internet commentators toward foreign aid, and to help for the Philippines in particular.

"There must have been a debate" inside the government about how much aid to give and how to supply it, said Qin Yaqing, professor of international studies at the Foreign Affairs University in Beijing. "Chinese culture takes an incremental way of doing things so as not to cause more trouble with the domestic" audience, he said.

In an unusual turn, the newspaper Global Times, which often projects a nationalist editorial line, criticized the initial offer of aid as too small. In an editorial on Tuesday, it noted that the Philippines was a two-hour flight from China's southern coast, but that countries much farther away responded quickly.

"A twisted relationship between the two countries caused by maritime disputes is not the reason to block joint efforts to combat natural disaster," the editorial said.