Thu, Jan 13, 2005 - Page 1 News List

China shuns significant tsunami-aid role

RISING POWER?Beijing's response to the tsunami that hit South Asia exposes the limitations in its physical ability to help in such crises -- and to live up to its rhetoric

AP , SINGAPORE

China -- which has recently taken a larger role in the politics of Southeast Asia -- has seemed strangely absent from the international response to the tsunami disaster.

While the US military dominates relief efforts and Japan has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars, China looks like a bit player.

To be sure, China has hardly been idle. It has promised around US$83 million in aid, which state media has called the "largest foreign relief operation to date." And Chinese citizens have donated US$18 million -- a stunning amount for a country where urban annual incomes hover around US$1,000.

Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) attended last week's tsunami relief summit in Jakarta, and China has already sent supplies and a 14-member medical team to Sri Lanka, among the worst-hit nations.

Yet those steps have barely registered in media coverage of the disaster, rife with images of US, Australian, and other relief teams hard at work. China's other main rival, Japan, has promised US$500 million and is poised to send nearly 1,000 troops to help out.

Even tiny Singapore has 900 servicemen and women on the ground in Indonesia.

Analysts say China's response exposes the limitations in its physical ability to help in such crises, along with the diplomatic costs of its long-held aversion to foreign entanglements.

"China is rising in importance in Asian and world affairs, but its power, influence and reach can easily be exaggerated," said Robert Sutter, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at Georgetown University in Washington.

China's absence wouldn't seem so glaring if it didn't follow a major foray into the region last year.

Wen was a central figure at November's meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where the organization's 10 member countries agreed to a landmark trade accord with China.

China has also made initiatives aimed at protecting vital sea lanes and securing a steady supply of oil and raw materials to fuel its booming economy. Vague agreements have been reached for cooperation in military training, health care, and tourism while highways and railroads are planned to draw the regions even closer.

However, China's civil and military bodies have little experience or capacity to deal with disasters far from its shores. Although Beijing has dispatched civilian peacekeepers to Haiti, Congo and other conflict areas, its forces are poorly equipped for humanitarian missions, especially thousands of kilometers from home.

China's response also reflects its extreme caution when approaching overseas adventures where the upside for China isn't readily obvious.

Many Chinese still consider their country a poor nation that can't afford to match Japan and the West in foreign aid and the government is wary of getting in over its head. While pledges to boost trade carry little political cost, a major foreign relief effort would divert limited resources and could entail longer-term commitments.

Bradley Williams, a research fellow in political science at the National University of Singapore, said China missed a golden opportunity to shore up regional friendships.

"Getting more involved would have provided China with a perfect opportunity to show their more compassionate side and alleviate some of the concerns about their rising influence in the region," Williams said.

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