Asia-Pacific Defense Forum / January 13, 2014
By Larry Luxner
U.S. troops played a critical role in helping the Philippines recover from Typhoon Haiyan, the country’s ambassador in Washington said at a conference two months after Yolanda — as it is known locally —ripped through the central Philippines, killing 6,183 people and causing nearly $13 billion in damage.
José Cuisía, Manila’s top diplomat in the United States, said that in Haiyan’s aftermath, the U.S. military transported 2,495 tons of relief supplies to the Philippines, and that its logistical support involved more than 50 aircraft and ships, and well over 1,000 soldiers. Besides the $60 million spent on search, rescue and relief operations, the U.S. government pledged an additional $25 million in humanitarian aid during the recent visit of Secretary of State John Kerry.
In addition, Cuisía said, there’s been an outpouring of donations from Filipino-Americans living in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu, Guam, Chicago, New York and elsewhere.
“We have received a lot of individual donations at the embassy, and we are grateful to the American people for their very generous assistance,” he said.
But the Pentagon’s close cooperation with the Philippine defense establishment made a critical difference in the days and weeks after Yolanda struck, Cuisía said. “The Marines who were there knew there was this huge typhoon coming,” he said. “The fact they were able to bring in Marines from Okinawa very quickly was a big help, particularly in the opening of the Tacloban airport. The U.S. military played a key role in that. We recognized the value of having pre-positioned equipment and troops that can assist in disaster relief.” In that context, the U.S. and Philippine governments are negotiating a “framework agreement for enhanced military cooperation,” said Cuisía. Another round of talks will be held later this month, he said, “and we are hopeful that this agreement will be signed within the next few months.”
Under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) signed in 1999, U.S. troops serve in the Philippines on a rotational basis. At present, the country hosts roughly 600 American military personnel who assist in counter-terrorism efforts, Cuisía said.
“The goal is to provide the U.S. military temporary access to certain facilities to be agreed upon,” he said. “There is no intent to have any permanent basing, or for the United States to have a new base. There’s been no discussion on the number of troops, but before, [when Clark and Subic were operational], we had 40,000 Americans, including civilians.”
Scot Marciel, principal deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, spoke at the Jan. 8 conference, organized by the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies. So did Brig. Gen. Joaquin Malavet is principal director for Asia and Pacific in the office of the deputy undersecretary of defense.
“This was an enormous disaster. We were there on the military and civilian side, and began funneling $86 million worth of assistance in immediately,” said Marciel, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. “But the numbers only tell a part of the story. We took the lead from our Philippine counterparts who could tell us what was really needed. Obviously, the most important thing is to respond as quickly as possible and save as many lives as you can.”
Marciel said “we certainly didn’t do this because of the rebalance” — a reference to the Obama administration’s 2009 decision to increase Washington’s focus on the Asia-Pacific region.
“Before the rebalance, we would have done the same thing, but it does highlight the very strong commitment the United States has to the region. The Philippines and other countries can count on the U.S. as a friend in case of disaster, and we’ll be there when our friends need us,” he said.
“If we didn’t have our Marines out there, even with the best efforts of our colleagues at USAID, it would have been very difficult. It also highlights the very real benefits of our long-term military relationship with the Philippines. It’s much easier when the militaries know each other and are used to working with each other. Building those relationships are very important.”
Malavet said that while the U.S. response to the tragedy — in terms of airlift, medical capability and naval presence — was impressive, “we can’t do it without the spirit and cooperation in the resident country” and that the Philippine Armed Forces deserves lots of praise in this regard.
“We learned a lot about the importance of early warning systems — telling people what it about to occur at a local level — the importance of a very strong and established command-and-control center, and having the visual capabilities to discern what has actually happened,” Malavet said.
“We also recognized during this tragedy that access roads, bridges, airfields and ports are very important, not only for the economy and trade at a local level, but are really part of national security. So we’re looking at areas of opportunity, ways we can bring engineers together and build out airfields and ports,” he said. “The U.S. military was able to bring to the Philippines some of the new technologies we’ve developed over the past 10 or 12 years — such as medical technologies and expeditionary energy that not only helps our U.S. forces but also has a local element as well.”
Aid also came from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-member bloc of countries, of which the Philippines is a founding member.
“We saw a number of ASEAN countries respond quite generously. This reflects a growing sense of community as well as capacity,” Marciel said. “What we find is that these disasters are so overwhelming, they wipe out the infrastructure, and very few governments have the logistical ability to respond quickly So even with the political will, it’s very dificult. The U.S. military has the greatest logistical capacity in the world, but realistically it’s going to take some time.”
He added: “Local authorities did a good job evacuating folks to places they thought would be typhoon-resistant, but none of us predicted the surge from the ocean, which ended up causing a huge amount of damage and a lot of deaths. These things are unpredictable.”
Cuisía said 171 municipalities in 14 provinces across the central Philippines are priority areas for assistance. More than 600,000 acres of crops were ravaged, so a plan is now in place to re-establish farmland, agriculture and fisheries infrastructure, while providing farmers with equipment, animals, seeds and other urgent assistance.
“Recovery and rehabilitation will not be easy. There are very real and substantive challenges ahead,” said the ambassador, noting that 44 provinces were affected by Haiyan and that close to four million people were left homeless.
“Despite the good intentions, things don’t go 100 percent in the right direction,” he said. “Local governments cannot cope with it. The refugee centers are overcrowded, and livelihoods are still a big challenge. Many of these people are fishermen, so they have to get boats as quickly as possible. But we’re hopeful. There’s more optimism now.”
Cuisía said his government is working together with the private sector to address the longer-term recovery, and that the international community has been very helpful.
“One week ago, South Korea sent a battalion of 540 engineers to help in the recovery and reconstruction effort, mostly in Tacloban. Japan also sent a team, and other countries including Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have also sent some forces in,” he said.
Cuisía said his government’s newly announced Reconstruction Assistance on Yolanda (RAY) program aims to restore economic and social conditions to their pre-typhoon levels under the slogan “Build Back Better.” Its key goals are to rebuild houses, remove debris, restore water systems, improve access to sanitation facilities, restart local government units and re-establish access to public health services and schools.