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Counting the political costs after Haiyan

haiyan

19 Dec Counting the political costs after Haiyan

More than a month after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, human casualties are still being counted and 3.88 million people are without permanent homes.

Government efforts, earlier criticised for being too slow, are underway and multinational assistance has been ramped up. The economic and political consequences are also becoming clearer, both domestically and in the region.

Economically, while the typhoon was a tragedy, most estimate that national growth — at 7 per cent over the past four quarters — will not be derailed. The stricken region in central Philippines was not an engine, and the services and incoming remittances from abroad should prove resilient and continue apace. There is, however, potential for negative impacts in terms of the focus, capacity and reputation of President Benigno Aquino’s administration.

CORRUPTION AND ECONOMICS

When responding to disasters, speed is essential. Yet, in the first days of the disaster, the government was found wanting, delivering supplies to only about 3 per cent of the 1.73 million families affected. The Philippine Daily Inquirer asked: “Who’s in charge here?”

President Aquino has called for patience and things have improved, but his approval numbers — already falling from 74 per cent to 49 per cent even before the disaster — have probably slipped further.

However, trying to move faster brings the dangers of haste. Much of the credit for economic improvement has been given to efforts to clean up corruption. The influx of relief funds will test the administration’s ability to respond quickly and effectively while maintaining good governance and minimising corruption.

This is especially with political infighting, given that the impacted region is under the control of political elites who are not in Mr Aquino’s camp. Reports are already emerging that some victims are being marginalised because they are not aligned politically to those in charge of the recovery funds.

The broader concern is that recovery efforts will shift the focus for the rest of Mr Aquino’s term. While the economy has been doing well, reforms are needed for further improvement.

Restrictive laws, like that on property ownership, as well as the most complex and costliest business regulations in South-east Asia, are some of the impediments. Infrastructure is a priority, and Mr Aquino has planned to increase spending on roads, airports and additional light rail systems.

It is also imperative to promote industrialisation as an additional economic engine for job growth. Despite growth, there is persistent unemployment, which stands at 6.5 per cent as of October.

RELATIONSHIPS SWEETENED AND SOURED

Beyond economics, signs are that Typhoon Haiyan has impacted the country’s relations with major regional players. United States President Barack Obama may have cancelled his visit scheduled for October, but naval carrier George Washington arrived quickly instead to provide relief. This has vividly underlined American power, both in military capacity and heartfelt willingness to help.

Ties with Japan are also emerging stronger from the crisis, with Japanese assistance offered quickly and additional billions in aid pledged at the recently-concluded Japan-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made ASEAN and especially Manila a priority relationship, and trade and investments are likely to increase.

This provides a sharp contrast to China. Beijing had slowed trade and tourism numbers to the Philippines to express displeasure over issues in the South China Sea, and this attitude spilled over into its niggardly response to the typhoon. While China publicly corrected course and has since sent a hospital ship, the initial response has left a sour note not only in Manila but also among others in the region.

DID ASEAN DO ENOUGH?

ASEAN has also been criticised for not doing more. Some of this is misplaced. The group lacks the resources of others like America, but some countries like Singapore and Malaysia were active early on in the disaster.

Myanmar President Thein Sein’s visit and his country’s aid pledge, while modest, are also symbolic. Myanmar is still very much a developing country which, not too long ago, suffered a similar fate with Cyclone Nargis.

The fact that it is the incoming ASEAN Chairman gives hope that the group will rally for the longer-term response, if this is welcomed by Manila. One way to do so would be to convene a pledging conference, as was done with Cyclone Nargis.

For Mr Aquino, two years and six months left in office means that he can leave behind a strong legacy and the continuity of his Liberal party and government policies. Domestically, the post-Haiyan period will require both fast and capable administration of local recovery efforts as well as a focus on reform to keep the national economy humming.

In foreign policy, the Aquino administration has clearly departed from its predecessors in ties with Beijing and, in the wake of Haiyan, will likely reaffirm ties with the US and Japan.

Coping and setting direction in the aftermath of Haiyan could define the Aquino presidency, for better or for worse.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Simon Tay is Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post-Crisis Divide from America. He was in Manila last month. This article appeared in the TODAY newspaper.