Disaster diplomacy governs who gets help after catastrophic events around the world

Unioncom/VCG via Getty ImagesA building tilts to one side after a 6.5-magnitude earthquake on February 7, 2018 in Hualien County, Taiwan.
  • Recent emergencies in the Asia Pacific show countries respond to disasters in line with their existing political alliances.
  • This pattern is called “disaster diplomacy,” according to an expert who spoke with Business Insider.
  • Disaster diplomacy was evident after Taiwan’s earthquake and during the Maldives’ state of emergency, as leaders made nuanced overtures in search of help from India, China, and Japan.

Most people were in bed when they felt it.

Shortly before midnight on February 6, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake tore through the city of Hualien, Taiwan. Buildings shook, roads ripped up, and many people escaped onto the streets.

All told, 17 people died and 285 were injured. A major hotel collapsed and rescue workers spent more than 100 hours searching for bodies in the rubble.

As expected, condolences and offers to help with the rescue efforts poured in from the international community.

But it was then that Taiwan made a seemingly small, yet telling, decision – it accepted rescue help from Japan, after it turned down a similar offer from China, a country with which it has a complex and fraught history.

Yet it’s not unusual for diplomatic ties to define emergency responses. In times of crises, politicians and diplomats regularly reinforce alliances and enmity based on their existing ideology, culture, values, and politics, says Ilan Kelman, author of “Disaster Diplomacy: How Disasters Affect Peace and Conflict.”

This field of study is called “disaster diplomacy” and academics have yet to find any instances where diplomatic relations have changed long-term after a disaster.

“Dealing with disasters typically pushes diplomatic relations along the pathway which it was on before,” Kelman told Business Insider. “If diplomatic relations are improving, then dealing with disasters can support this improvement temporarily. If diplomatic relations are deteriorating, then dealing with disasters can give excuses to continue moving farther apart.”

And nowhere was this more evident in the last month than in the Asia Pacific.

Taiwan rebuffed China’s help, like it rebuffs China’s influence

Taiwan earthquake buildingUnioncom/VCG via Getty ImagesA building tilts to one side after a 6.5-magnitude earthquake on February 7, 2018 in Hualien County, Taiwan.

Taiwan’s political situation is nothing short of complicated.

The democratic island, officially known as the Republic of China, is self-ruled. A pro-independence party has been in power since 2016.But Beijing considers Taiwan a province of China that will eventually be reunified under “one China.”

In the wake of the February 6 earthquake, China offered to send rescue teams, but Taipei’s Mainland Affairs Council said it didn’t need external help.

“At the moment, we have adequate manpower and facilities in support of the rescue operation,” Chiu Chui-cheng, vice-chairman of The Mainland Affairs Council, told South China Morning Post.

When asked if this was dismissing an olive branch from China, Chiu added, “It is a natural disaster and the rescue involves humanitarian efforts. They shouldn’t be used as [a bridge] for political connection.”

But a day later, Japanese rescuers arrived in Taiwan.

The Taiwanese government said it only accepted the offer because Japan could provide specialised body-heat detection equipment it did not have.

But the message from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, who has refused to endorse the “one China” policy, seemed clear to China.

“The Japanese side openly attempted to create ‘one China, one Taiwan’ under the pretext of disaster relief and condolences,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

The Maldives is split between China and India

Maldives state of emergency policeAHMED SHURAU/AFP/Getty ImagesMaldivian opposition supporters scuffling with security forces officers during a protest demanding the release of political prisoners in Male on February 21, 2018.

Meanwhile, India has been closely watching an unfolding emergency in the Maldives.

The Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago near some crucial shipping lanes, has historically been closely tied to India but in recent years turned towards China.

Tensions rose when, the day before Taiwan’s earthquake, the Maldives’ President Yameen Abdul Gayoom declared a state of emergency.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s only ever democratically-elected leader who now lives in exile in Sri Lanka, quickly asked India on Twitter to send troops to address the situation.

“Maldivians see India’s role positively: in ’88 they came, resolved the crisis, and left. They were not occupiers but liberators. This is why Maldivians look to India now,” Nasheed also tweeted, referencing Indian soldiers who helped the government foil a coup in 1988.

But President Yameen instead sent envoys to “friendly nations,” including China, which is thought to be investing in the Maldives as part of its “string of pearls” that effectively encircle India.

In response, the Chinese state-run newspaper, Global Times, ran an op-ed that said, “Perhaps New Delhi has been seeking an opportunity to showcase its military again in its ‘backyard.'”

“If India one-sidedly sends troops to the Maldives, China will take action to stop New Delhi,” the column read.

The situation has yet to be resolved, with the state of emergency this week extended for another 30 days.

But none of it surprises Kelman.

“The countries involved were on specific diplomatic pathways and were seeking specific diplomatic interests,” Kelman said. “They use any excuse to pursue what they wish to do anyway.”

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