When images of the destruction in the Philippines wreaked by Super Typhoon Haiyan were broadcast across the world last week, the international community rushed forward with generous offers of aid. The U.S. pledged $20 million and mobilized an aircraft carrier for the relief effort. Britain promised $16 million and sent a warship. The Vatican dispatched $4 million, Japan $10 million, and Ireland $1.4 million.
As for China, the neighborhood's superpower and the world's second-largest economy? It initially offered a measly $100,000. Following a storm of bad publicity — TIME's Hanna Beech called the donation mean-spirited, and even China's nationalist Global Times newspaper said in an editorial that the offer was too small — Beijing upped its donation to $1.6 million. That's still less than the $2.7 million pledged by the charitable wing of Swedish furniture giant Ikea.
For China, that skimpy donation was a way of showing its disapproval with the Philippines. The two countries have sparred repeatedly in the past year over tiny islands in the South China Sea that both nations claim as their own, with China staking its maritime claim by blocking Filipino fishermen from contested waters. In retaliation, the Philippines this year accepted a gift of naval vessels from China's regional rival Japan, and invited the U.S. to reopen some bases that closed in the 1990s.
"People assume that the world sets aside its political wrangling and help each other out at times of disaster," Lucy Easthope, a disaster-management expert at Britain's University of Lincoln, told The Independent. "It isn't like that at all. It almost always comes with strings attached. It's hugely political."
But China may have made chosen the wrong political strategy here. By choosing to use aid as a means of punishment, China missed an opportunity to win over hearts and minds and soothe tensions — which is how the U.S. has approached past humanitarian efforts.
In the wake of the December 2004 Asian tsunami, for instance, the U.S. pumped aid into hard-hit Indonesia and deployed military personnel to help with the relief effort. Before that natural disaster, just 15 percent of people in Indonesia — the world's most populous Muslim nation — had a positive view of the U.S. By the following summer, the U.S. approval rating had more than doubled to 40 percent.
"I was very surprised," said Kenneth Ballen, president of U.S. organization Terror Free Tomorrow. "In a year that's included Koran desecration [at Guantanamo Bay] and the ongoing war in Iraq, you'd think support would have fallen."
But there are limits to what disaster relief can achieve. Following a devastating October 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, the U.S. provided more than $500 million in aid and deployed Chinook helicopters to help rescue victims. A spring 2006 survey showed only a modest uptick in views of the U.S., with 27 percent of Pakistanis giving the U.S. a positive rating, up from 23 percent the previous year.
However, by spring 2007, U.S. favorability had slipped to 15 percent. Ultimately, U.S. aid was not enough to overcome many Pakistanis' deep suspicion of U.S. motives, as well as their opposition to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
In the end, the damage caused by China's miserliness will likely be "remarkably small," Steve Tsang, a China expert at Britain's University of Nottingham, told the Associated Press. But that's only because most countries in the region have such a negative view of the People's Republic of China that they never expected any sudden displays of generosity from Beijing. That opinion is not likely to change any time soon.