Taiwan’s humanitarian aid/disaster relief: Wither or prosper?

Taiwan’s humanitarian aid/disaster relief: Wither or prosper?

Taiwan has a long history of, and a unique approach to humanitarianism. On the one hand, Taiwan consistently expresses gratitude for the aid it has received from the United States when still poor and underdeveloped, and acknowledges aid as one of the key factors in its development. Taiwan’s rapid development led USAID to terminate development assistance programs in 1965. A strong consensus exists within Taiwan that aid does work, and therefore, it is Taiwan’s duty to repay its debt to the international community by providing assistance, and that the best that aid recipients can do is to get inspiration from, if not replicate, Taiwan’s experience.

On the other hand, Taiwan’s authorities have in the past two decades consistently used humanitarian arguments to advance political and diplomatic interests. While many governments do this, Taiwan’s case is unique due to its precarious quasi-state condition that is threatened with forceful re-unification by its authoritarian neighbor. The combination of strong belief, sense of obligation and an existential threat magnified by the island’s isolation makes Taiwan’s humanitarianism stand out.

In 1991, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, the largest Taiwan-based relief organization with offices in 47 countries, was the first NGO to provide emergency relief assistance overseas to the victims of a cyclone in Bangladesh. Tzu-chi and other NGOs, including the Taiwan Red Cross and Taiwan Roots, responded to major disasters including Hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1999, the Kosovar refugee crisis in Macedonia in 1999, and earthquakes in El Salvador, Peru and India in 2001, in addition to lesser-known medical and humanitarian missions.

The Chen Shui-bian administration initiated official humanitarian assistance and support for the overseas relief programs of Taiwanese NGOs. Humanitarian assistance was listed among the country’s foreign aid goals. From 2001, official humanitarian assistance funding was included in Taiwan’s International Cooperation and Development Fund (TaiwanICDF) annual budget.

Noting that Taiwan’s humanitarian assistance mainly consisted of emergency relief in the aftermath of natural disasters, reconstruction work and grassroots medical services, the Chen administration decided to broaden the focus by addressing the needs of refugees and displaced populations and promoting “long-term development of human rights and higher living standards” through education, health, nutrition and sanitation.

The stated diplomatic objectives of Taiwan’s assistance were joining the World Health Organization (WHO) as an observer and expanding its international space. Humanitarian assistance was therefore to be extended to ‘friendly countries’ other than those with official diplomatic ties.

However, none of Taiwan’s foreign policy objectives had been reached by the end of Chen’s two terms: diplomatic allies had whittled away from 30 to 23 in a war of attrition with Beijing, and every year Taiwan failed in its WHO bid, while aid amounts were diminishing. Yearly humanitarian assistance budgets fell from US$1 million in the early 2000s to US$300,000 in 2006 and US$400,000 in 2007. The government supported NGOs logistically and took credit for emergency assistance, while NGOs provided the bulk of relief items – as was the case in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003 and after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Upon its return to power in 2008, the Kuomintang (KMT) shifted its humanitarian assistance strategy to “viable diplomacy”. In 2009, President Ma Ying-jeou struck a deal with Beijing, the details of which were not made public, and Taiwan was admitted as an observer to the World Health Assembly (WHA) for the first time. Ma also declared a unilateral diplomatic truce, whereby neither side of the Strait would try to poach the other side’s diplomatic allies. In 2010, “humanitarian care” was added, through a presidential decree, to Taiwan’s list of universal values to safeguard, including peace, democracy and human rights.

Notwithstanding the diplomatic truce, the 2010 International Cooperation and Development Act listed the enhancement of diplomatic interests and “friendly relations with countries that do not have diplomatic ties with the ROC” as the first two goals of Taiwan’s assistance. The act clarified the official responsibilities, procedures and methods for all cooperation projects, including humanitarian ones. Financial transparency was enhanced, as yearly assistance and project budgets were made public.

Official humanitarian assistance now focused on recovery and reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of natural or man-made disasters, while NGOs were thought to be better equipped to intervene quickly during the emergency phase. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and TaiwanICDF sought to draw on the expertise and networks of international NGOs and set up joint-funding mechanisms with global NGOs such as Mercy Corps and World Vision. Humanitarian assistance budgets were increased significantly, to US$6-8 million annually.

During Ma’s administration, Taiwan also raised the profile of its emergency assistance. In response to the devastating January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which holds official relations with Taiwan, Taiwan’s Air Force “delivered relief supplies on a C-130 transport plane, which received approval for refueling and repair at U.S. bases.” In the aftermath of the November 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, Taiwan’s Air Force and Navy used its C-130 aircraft and a landing ship-tank to deliver private and official supplies worth US$12.7 million to the Philippines. Aid was also distributed on the ground by many volunteers from several Taiwanese NGOs, including the Tzu-Chi Foundation.

While such operations point to Taiwan’s upgraded capacities and civilian-military humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) cooperation, they remain hardly visible to the international community as a result of Taiwan’s modest aid budget and exclusion from the global, UN-centered aid system. Besides, Taiwan’s current model of humanitarian assistance faces challenges, due to an evolution in the United States HA/DR doctrine and China’s suspicions of newly-elected Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s intentions.

The U.S. HA/DR doctrine has shifted significantly since the heydays of the “winning hearts and minds” approach whereby NGOs were simply seen as force multipliers. The Department of Defense now advocates a more balanced and complementary approach between the armed forces and NGOs in disaster relief missions. Taiwan provided relief to Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of U.S. interventions there, but similar opportunities primarily depend on U.S. military logistics in conflict areas.

Elsewhere, China’s distrust of President Tsai may affect Taiwan’s already constrained space in global opportunities to provide disaster relief. In her inaugural address, Tsai acknowledged the importance of cross-Strait relations and the historical importance of the 1992 talks, but failed to formally endorse the so-called “1992 Consensus”, which Beijing has been calling her to do. This may lead to the end of the diplomatic truce initiated by Ma Ying-jeou, and re-ignite China’s efforts to lure Taiwan’s diplomatic allies away from the island. Taiwan’s HA/DR operations to assist Central American and Caribbean allies, including government or military air transport, public or private donations and response teams, rely on U.S. logistical support. Should Taiwan lose more diplomatic allies, the space available to such humanitarian assistance, such as logistical support, could be further reduced. Increased pressure from Beijing on other countries may similarly dissuade them from granting access to Taiwan volunteers and aid workers, as happened in the past. Following a 7.8 earthquake in April 2015 in Nepal, the Nepalese government turned down Taiwan’s offer to send a search and rescue team, citing the lack of diplomatic ties and the physical distance between Taiwan and Nepal.

What, then, are the prospects for Taiwan to show goodwill and generate external recognition through HA/DR operations? Two considerations may contribute to re-shaping Taiwan’s disaster relief model in the short to medium term: the DPP’s new approach and the evolving HA/DR environment in the South China Sea.

True, no specific hint of a new HA/DR thinking transpired from President Tsai’s inaugural address. Unsurprisingly, she mentioned that the new government would “support and participate in international cooperation on emerging global issues including humanitarian aid.” But, behind this uncontroversial opening statement, the DPP has outlined an ambitious agenda. In a 2014 blue paper the DPP called for increased cooperation among government and non-state actors in foreign humanitarian assistance and the establishment of an “Asia Pacific Humanitarian Assistance Platform (APHAP)” to “promote personnel exchange, experience sharing, and consensus building among Taiwanese and other related public and civil sectors in regional nations, and to actively reinforce FHA/FDR efforts conducted by foreign institutes such as the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Centre, Japan’s Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund, or the United States Agency for International Development.”

The DPP also plans to “seek out possible participation in bi- or multi-lateral training and exercises… build a 10,000 ton hospital ship to provide medical assistance to our off-shore islanders and foreign population in peacetime and crisis response… [and] construct Taiping Island as the forward base for” foreign HA/DR missions.”

These propositions obviously signal the expanding HA/DR ambitions of the incoming administration. They also carry complex implications. Hospital ships tend to generate more diplomatic than medical benefits. The DPP recognizes that foreign HA/DR “missions have strategic significance in lessening hostility and growing friendship” and refers in particular to the goodwill generated by the U.S. Navy’s dispatch of hospital ships to Indonesia after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Noting that foreign HA/DR “missions are still confined mostly to the delivery of relief supplies”, the blue paper hints at increased roles for military forces in HA/DR, as disaster relief operations that go beyond the mere provision of financial assistance would generate a positive image of Taiwan in the global arena.

The proposal to establish Taiping, the largest naturally occurring structure in the Spratly archipelago, as a forward base for HA/DR missions raises other issues. The blue paper simply notes that foreign HA/DR “supplies and equipment can be stored on the island”, but does not discuss operational constraints. Will military assets and forces be deployed and stationed there to strengthen emergency response capacity? Simply stockpiling relief supplies on the island would not make much sense in the absence of a means of delivery and logistical support. Is the HA/DR forward base intended to be a hub for training? Would it be open to the participation from other militaries or civilian HA/DR actors?

At a July 19 National Security Council meeting, President Tsai mentioned “collaborating with global organizations to develop Taiping Island into a base for providing humanitarian aid and supplies”. Listed as one of the responses to the July 12 decision of the International Permanent Court of Arbitration, the proposal appears to have diplomatic value. Since the court rejected Taiwan’s claim over Taiping, it is doubtful that any global organization would want to get involved in the development of an HA/DR base there.

Logistically, the proposal makes sense considering Taiping’s central location and it being larger than any other geographical feature in the South China Sea. The 1,150-meter long runway can accommodate the Hercules C-130 transport aircraft, but Taiwan has yet to build a wharf where large-displacement vessels could dock. Whether Taiwan’s new administration will prioritize these ambitious plans or muster the political and financial resources to implement them is unclear.

The DPP’s blue paper also discusses Taiwan’s comparative advantages in the provision of disaster relief in the region. First is Taiwan military’s sealift and airlift capacity, which is the second largest among East Asian countries, excluding China. Second is Taiwan’s proximity to possible theaters of intervention, as a mere 250 kilometers separate Taiwan from the Philippines across the Bashi Strait. Third is domestic support, illustrated in particular by the amount of donations from the public in the aftermath of the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, and the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan. Notwithstanding these advantages, Taiwan’s resources are limited and U.S. HA/DR capabilities are ultimately unmatched in the region.

At the same time, the document lists obstacles and underlying issues. One of them is the absence of a specific legislation authorizing the use of armed forces for external assistance, a point that the DPP-controlled Legislative Yuan could address easily. China’s diplomatic and military pressure is a more serious concern. China has in the past frustrated Taiwan’s offers to help, as in the case of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 flight.25

How should the United States respond? Amid rising tensions, both across the Taiwan Strait and throughout the South China Sea, should the United States engage Taiwan, or be wary of its ambitious and bold HA/DR propositions? These ambitions could impact Sino-U.S. relations and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Nonetheless, four main reasons should lead the U.S. to promote cooperation rather than to restrict Taiwan’s HA/DR reach.

First, the need for disaster relief operations is likely to increase. East and Southeast Asia are the regions most affected by an extensive range of potential disasters. Driven by unbridled urbanization particularly in low-elevation coastal zones, the region’s vulnerability to seismic risk, volcanic activity and extreme weather events is on the rise, compounded by technological hazards and possibly anthropogenic climate change. There are indications that more rather than fewer disasters on the scale of the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, the 2011 Japan earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, and the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan can be expected to strike the region in the future. Taiwan proved in its response to Typhoon Haiyan that its civilian and military actors could be among the first ones on the ground.

Second, Taiwan’s increased capabilities, geographical location and stated calls for enhanced interactions with the rapidly evolving regional HA/DR environment. For a long time, this was not an issue, as Taiwan’s focus on developing HA/DR capacities was limited. While it would be dangerous for Taiwan to divert limited resources from its defense needs, Taiwan can make use of the versatility of naval or other dual-use assets. Typhoon Haiyan was a turning point in HA/DR cooperation for Asian nations. China deployed its hospital-ship Peace Ark for the first time in a disaster relief emergency situation, Japan sent three ships and 1,180 military personnel, its first ever significant military deployment in an HA/DR context, and Taiwan jointly deployed its Navy and Air Force. In parallel, HA/DR exercises have started to internationalize in the region. Japan and the Philippines held joint exercises in 2015, while China was invited to the U.S. RIMPAC exercises in 2014 and again in 2016. It would not make sense to exclude one of the main, centrally located players from training activities, policy dialogue or joint exercises, especially in a highly volatile region prone to more frequent and deadlier disasters.

Third, as bilateral and multilateral HA/DR coordination largely centered on the U.S. Navy intensifies in the region, shunning Taiwan may be counter-productive. Isolating a more assertive Taiwan may re-energize the pro-independence forces that Tsai has sought to assuage. The rationale for China’s participation in RIMPAC is that HA/DR drills are supposed to generate trust. That rationale should apply to Taiwan too.

Fourth, increased U.S. involvement is desirable because Taiwan itself is vulnerable. In 2009, Typhoon Morakot left more than 600 dead on the island. The storm exposed shortcomings in domestic disaster response, despite a massive involvement of the military and regular upgrades in the structure of Taiwanese emergency management systems in the aftermath of earlier disasters. The DPP blue paper pointed out a regional imbalance, highlighting an internal divide, with military forces concentrated in the west of the island to counter a Chinese invasion, while typhoons mostly strike the east coast.

Taiwan is expected to upgrade disaster response capacity at home if it aspires to become a significant regional HA/DR actor, even though the military forces involved may be different (primarily ground forces at home, and Navy and Air Force overseas). Taiwan’s military resources would likely be stretched should a large-scale disaster like a tsunami strike Taiwan and neighboring countries simultaneously. Taiwan would then be required to focus on the domestic situation. Preparing for any major disaster at home calls for closer HA/DR cooperation between Taiwan and the United States.

Training Taiwan’s civilian and military actors in HA/DR is a good starting point. Taiwan and the Unites States signed a memorandum of understanding in June 2015, launching a new initiative titled Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF). The objective is for both partners to train individuals from outside their territories and provide other services to be specified. HA/DR has been identified as one of the main areas that this initiative intends to cover.

While welcome, this initiative does not address operational issues, including communications and command and coordination in the field, which can only be tested through Taiwan’s participation in exercises involving relevant military assets. Ahead of RIMPAC 2014, the Senate Armed Services Committee suggested that “both the PRC and Taiwan should be afforded the opportunity to participate (not just observe) in the HA/DR parts of multilateral exercises, such as RIMPAC.” A recent congressional report noted that “The United States could work with Taiwan to increase cooperation in international security” but made no specific mention of HA/DR.

It is too early to conclude if Taiwan’s new administration will prioritize these ambitious plans or muster the political and financial resources to implement them, but the issues they raise require attention. While Taiwan’s primary focus in the use of military assets is on preventing aggression or invasion from across the Strait, HA/DR operations offer an opportunity to reduce the island’s isolation to some extent. The potential and limits of such operations should be explored sooner rather than later, considering that China has yet to realize the intrinsic value and diplomatic potential of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. China’s perceived lack of concern in its initial response to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 was seen as a missed opportunity.

Taiwan could of course choose to expand its international presence in humanitarian assistance and disaster management in other ways too. One would be strategizing foreign assistance and focusing on areas such as disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, which are relevant to the Asian-Pacific region as well as Taiwan’s allies in the Caribbean and the South Pacific. As noted by former Premier Mao Chi-kuo, “Good disaster management relies largely on the preventive and preparatory work we do during peacetime, as well as the appropriate measures we take before, during and after disasters.”

Finally, increasing its annual humanitarian assistance budget, which amounted to US$6.3 million in 2015 and has been mostly flat over the past four years, would be a first step in making Taiwan’s assistance more visible. It might also help persuade the United States to take a broader view of the multiple dimensions, risks and opportunities arising from Taiwan’s expanded HA/DR capabilities and ambitions.

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