It was 1991 when a closely divided Philippine government ordered U.S. forces to leave the naval base in Subic Bay, a sprawling facility that had been used by Americans for decades. The Philippines and the U.S. militaries have interacted since, but only recently began discussing the possibility of again basing U.S. forces in the southeastern Asia nation. Even that hit a reported snag, however, over how the Philippine military would be allowed to use U.S. facilities built there.
It is against this backdrop that the U.S. military scrambled to assist the Philippines after much of it was leveled by Super Typhoon Haiyan, the monstrous storm that roared over the island nation Friday. Officials have said it may have killed more than 10,000 people, as a wall of water and winds in excess of 200 miles per hour devastated the country.
U.S. Marines were among the first to respond, sending about 90 personnel and two KC-130J planes from Futenma, Japan on Sunday to assess the damage. On Monday, the military announced additional support, including the deployment of more Marine Corps aircraft to perform search and rescue missions and deliver supplies and food to stranded civilians. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also ordered the aircraft carrier George Washington and other U.S. ships to the Philippines, including the cruisers Antietam and Cowpens, the destroyers Mustin and Lassen, and the supply ship Charles Drew.
"As needed, these ships and aircraft will be able to provide humanitarian assistance, supplies and medical care in support of the ongoing efforts led by the government and military of the Republic of the Philippines," said Pentagon press secretary George Little on Monday night. "The ships should be on station with 48-72 hours. The Defense Department is continuing to work closely with the Philippine government to determine what, if any, additional assets may be required."
The response could become the latest example of the U.S. winning both goodwill and political points with an eastern Asian country while responding to natural disaster. In each case, the U.S. military's positioning of forces in the region allowed it to provide robust assistance more quickly and effectively than any other nation. That underscored America's ability to respond to crisis when other countries -- especially China, a growing power -- were unwilling or unable to do so. That, despite opposition at worst and mixed feelings at best in some of those nations to the U.S. moving to increase the amount of forces it circulates through the Pacific.
"The United States, for all of our problems, still has a lot of good working relationships and good will in that area of the world," said Michael Auslin, an expert on Asian politics and security issues at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. "The tragedy here is unfortunately an opportunity for us to show what we can do."
Auslin cited the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as a more drastic example of how providing humanitarian assistance improved U.S. relations in Asia. In that case, the worst hit country was Indonesia, which had maintained a frosty relationship with the U.S. since it imposed sanctions on the Indonesian government in 1991 following an incident in which Indonesian soldiers opened fire on a demonstration in East Timor, killing more than 270 people. After more than 130,000 Indonesians were killed by the tsunami, however, the U.S. dispatched the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and other ships to the region, providing helicopters and other assistance.
The U.S. relationship with Indonesia began to normalize afterward, most notably with the U.S. lifting an arms embargo in 2006. By last year, Indonesia's ministers had grown enough trust in the U.S. that they said they approved of the U.S. Marines expanding operations in nearby Australia, and wanted to conduct more disaster relief training with the American forces.
In another example, U.S. forces responded to a brutal earthquake in northeastern Japan in 2011 that killed more than 15,000 people and caused three nuclear reactors at a nuclear power plant to melt down. An estimated 24,000 U.S. service members took part in the relief effort, Operation Tomodachi. The Pentagon later acknowledged that some of them may have been exposed to radiation in the process, boosting their chances of developing cancer and other diseases. Japan's top officials later eased their rhetoric over the U.S.'s plans to shift forces around on its Japanese bases, thanking them for their help after the disaster.
In the case of the Philippines, the U.S. has a far better relationship than it did with Indonesia in 2004, said Murray Hiebert, an expert on southeastern Asia issues at the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. In particular, the Philippine military has worked with U.S. special operators in small numbers for years to fight the nation's insurgent groups, which include the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Still, America's involvement in the typhoon relief effort will service as a reminder to Philippine officials that there are benefits in striking a deal to allow the U.S. to base Marines and sailors there on a rotational basis. "Neither side is talking all that much" about it now, Hiebert said, but will likely circle back to it in coming weeks.
"The Philippines wants this very badly," he said. "They want us as a hedge against a growing China. I can't imagine they are going to spurn this opportunity."