As the death toll tops 3,700, countries around the world ramp up their ‘disaster diplomacy’ to save lives and bolster relations.
- By Keith JohnsonKeith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s acting managing editor for news. He has been at FP since 2013, after spending 15 years covering terrorism, energy, airlines, politics, foreign affairs, and the economy for the Wall Street Journal. He has reported from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and, contrary to rumors, has absolutely no plans to resume his bullfighting career.
The United States, China, and India are sending disaster response teams to earthquake-ravaged Nepal, highlighting the role that disaster diplomacy can play in foreign affairs as countries project soft-power influence and aim to win goodwill among their neighbors.
Chinese search-and-rescue teams arrived in Nepal on Sunday, one day after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated the capital city of Kathmandu and killed more than 3,700 people across the Himalayan nation. The U.S. Disaster Response Team is slated to arrive midday on Monday, while a pair of U.S. military special forces teams are providing immediate medical assistance.
The teams from the two countries — as well as India’s contribution of a 300-person disaster response team and a mobile hospital — are racing to keep the death toll from topping the more than 8,000 that died in Nepal’s last mega-quake in 1934. The Nepalese government has been overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, especially in hard-to-access rural areas.
The international response is an attempt to save lives, but all three countries know it can also pay political dividends down the road. Disaster response is especially important in Asia, where dense populations are coupled with oft-weak government capacities and vulnerability to quakes, typhoons, and other natural disasters. China, in particular, has spent the last decade trying to bolster its own disaster-response capabilities in order to burnish its image across Asia and the Pacific.
“A friend in need is a friend indeed,” said Mahesh Kumar Maskey, Nepal’s ambassador to China, according to Xinhua. “Nepali people will always remember the support and help from China.”
Washington has also moved fast, releasing $1 million in assistance on Saturday, and the European Union on Sunday announced 3 million euros in aid for Nepal. Individual EU countries are also mobilizing disaster-response teams. The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and Singapore also sent search-and-rescue teams. The International Monetary Fund said it would coordinate international financing efforts to help the government of Nepal.
The initial quake was centered on an area northwest of Kathmandu, and aid workers fear that part of the country could be devastated. The death toll continued to rise on Sunday in part due to a pair of large-scale aftershocks to the east of the capital. The tremors destroyed historic buildings in Kathmandu, forced residents to spend the weekend in the open for fear of being trapped inside crumbling buildings, and prompted avalanches that killed 18 climbers on nearby Mt. Everest. The shocks reached into neighboring India and Tibet, killing at least 60 more people.
The earthquake was, in a way, overdue. The region is one of the most seismically unstable in the world, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and massive quakes have hit the region on average every 75 years, the New York Times noted. Nepal sits atop the fault line where the Himalayan tectonic plate pushes under the Eurasian plate, creating the risk of earthquakes in an arc across all of South Asia.
The prompt dispatch of disaster teams is on the one hand a purely humanitarian gesture. Both the U.S. and Chinese squads, which have years of experience, include trained canine teams that can scour rubble for survivors. Beyond the hospital and specialized personnel, India is also mobilizing helicopters to help the rescue effort. Pakistan dispatched military aircraft with a field hospital and rescue teams, as well as supplies.
But disaster response and humanitarian assistance also plays a key role in soft-power projection. The United States, for example, won hearts and minds across southeast Asia due to the scale and speed of its response to the 2004 tsunami. Washington also played a key role in responding to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and a devastating 2013 typhoon that hammered the Philippines. Faced with the prospect of ever-greater natural disasters, the U.S. Defense Department is focusing more on its ability to carry out humanitarian assistance and disaster response missions, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.
Such efforts prompted China to beef up its own capacity to respond to disasters, including its 62-member disaster response team and the construction of a huge floating hospital ship, the Peace Ark. Beijing even claims that its construction activities on disputed reefs and shoals in the South China Sea are meant, in part, to make it easier to respond to natural disasters in the area.
China’s efforts to turn disaster response into diplomatic dividends have proven a bumpy road, however. Beijing’s slow footed and stingy initial response to the 2013 Philippines’ typhoon contrasted with U.S. aid, and helped further sour tensions with Manila. China’s hopes for long-term dividends from aid sent to Japan likewise soured.
At the same time, China’s efforts to win friends and influence neighbors through disaster assistance are colliding with Beijing’s redoubled efforts to stake territorial claims in the South China Sea. That has further riled the very Southeast Asian nations it hopes to win over with offers of assistance.
Note: This article was updated early Monday, April 27.
Photo credit: OMAR HAVANA/Getty