Mardell: US pivots to the Philippines

A woman carries her baby across an area damaged by Typhoon Haiyan at Tacloban city, Leyte province, central Philippines on 12 November 2013 Typhoon Haiyan destroyed large swaths of the Philippines, killing more than 2,000 people

President Obama's much debated "pivot to Asia" can often seem like an abstract diplomatic desire.

But it may now be saving lives. The "pivot" has meant Mr Obama has continued switching US military focus from the Middle East to the Pacific Ocean.

It is controversial on many levels, but it may be paying dividends for the unfortunate people of the Philippines.

Yesterday two transport planes and a group of marines were sent to Tacloban.

New treaty likely

The aircraft carrier George Washington and cruisers Antietam and Cowpens, the destroyers Mustin and Lassen, and the supply ship Charles Drew are also heading to the area.

The US military has had a tortured relationship with the Philippines - a base was closed in the 1990s, which was a real strategic loss.

Recently relationships have improved a lot, and a new treaty is likely.

This swift response from the US is in contrast to the Philippines' big neighbour, China.

They've offered a measly $100,000. OK, they are locked in a bitter dispute over who owns the Spratley Islands.

This makes them all the more worried about the possible treaty between the Philippines and the US, but that makes offering aid clever diplomacy, rather than comforting the enemy.

In the summer I went to China to make a documentary on Sino-US relations.

Many Chinese are concerned that the "pivot to Asia" is little more than code for an increase in US naval power in the region, aimed at boxing them in.

Altruism as diplomacy
Unidentified soldiers stand near a V-22 Osprey in Leyte, Philippines on 12 November 2013  A V-22 Osprey was among the US military kit deployed to Leyte, Philippines

At the same time there are some who want their country's ever-growing economic might to be matched with a bigger influence in the world, starting in their own region.

But many genuinely don't want to match what they see as America's presumptuousness and arrogance.

You would have thought that lending a friendly hand to a neighbour in dire need would be a textbook exercise in soft power, but it doesn't appear to be happening.

It's true Filipinos might not want to see Chinese warships off their shores, or men in PLA uniforms bearing food and water.

Then again, they might not care right now about the political provenance of help.

The US aid may not just be motivated by a good heart and a love of liberty - altruism is good diplomacy too.

Its request for a big base may now garner support among those who were wary.

It comes back to the old question, often heard around Washington, "If not us, who?"

In the Philippines, I bet they are just glad it is somebody with the lifting power to make a difference.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell North America editor

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