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China Defends 'Nominal' Role In Tsunami Relief Effort

by Antoaneta Bezlova

coverage of tsunami relief

(IPS) BEIJING -- While China's media and academics are defending the country's conspicuously small aid donations to the tsunami-battered countries, they also denounced major donors as engaging in 'political chess play' -- as these countries doled out huge sums of money in emergency aid packages.

'The China Economic Times' noted on Jan. 11 in a signed opinion piece that it was only natural for big developed countries to donate more and blamed western 'environmental vandalism and excessive tourism' for the destruction of Thailand's ecosystems, which it said had been made worse by the Dec. 26 tsunami.

China's backlash comes after the foreign media criticized Beijing for failing to respond adequately to a colossal humanitarian effort launched in its own backyard, after killer waves, spawned by a 9.0 magnitude undersea quake in northern Sumatra, devastated coastline communities of a dozen Indian Ocean rim countries in South and Southeast Asia.

The death toll from one of the worst natural disasters mankind has seen is currently over 160,000.

Observers have argued that Beijing has not lived up to its voiced ambitions of becoming the new responsible leader of the region.

In recent days, however, Chinese academics have defended Beijing's small contributions to the tsunami-devastated region as realistic and commensurate with China's status of a developing country. They have also described the rush by big powers to raise the level of aid pouring into the region as generous promises that may never fully materialize.

After the tsunami struck, the U.S. dispatched 13,000 military personnel and a flotilla of warships and helicopters to the region and pledged $350 million in aid. Japan has sent a pair of destroyers and a supply ship in a rare overseas aid mission for its military, and promized $500 million.

Australia has offered $810 million and even distant Norway has promized $183 million.

By contrast, China's presence on the ground is limited to half-a-dozen medical teams, DNA experts in Thailand to identify corpses and contributions of mobile phones and communication equipment to battered Aceh in northern Sumatra

'The area of tsunami devastation in Asia has become a stage where a round of big political chess is being played out,' said Liu Weidong, a researcher with the American Studies Institute under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

'The outpouring of relief aid cannot disguise the naked geopolitical ambitions of big world powers,' Liu wrote in the 'Southern Weekend' -- a Guangzhou-based weekly admired here for its polemical style and investigative reports.

While official state propaganda has described China's response to the disaster as the country's largest peacetime overseas humanitarian mission ever, China watchers say Beijing's response has failed to live up to its newly-found clout of a regional power.

Some have warned that a low level of involvement in the international relief could result in Beijing losing its regional mantra to other rival powers.

'As a developing country, China can't compare with world powers in donating big sums of money. But it cannot idly sit and watch as the U.S. is launching a new 'Marshal plan' in Asia that can hurt China's geopolitical interests,' Liu Feng and Liu Qun, researchers with Fudan University China Economic Study Institute wrote in the 'Southern Weekend.'

Traditionally averse towards foreign involvements, Beijing has nevertheless mounted a sizeable diplomatic and public effort to share in the unprecedented outpour of humanitarian relief.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was one of the foreign dignitaries to attend the relief summit in Indonesia, along with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. After initially pledging $2.6 million, Beijing later announced it would raise its contribution to $83 million.

Even more noteworthy has been China's civilian response.

Chinese citizens, have reportedly donated more than $18 million -- a private response to a calamity outside Chinese borders that left their countrymen virtually untouched. The last time Chinese citizens in large numbers made donations to an outside humanitarian cause was in the 1980s, to help African famine victims.

International NGOs have attributed the unprecedented flow of private donations to the Chinese people's new confidence in their growing affluence.

'With China emerging as a global political and economic force, we believe the affluent in Chinese society realise that they have an opportunity to help the unfortunate both in China and overseas,' said Sze Tong Chan, CEO of World Vision China.

But Chinese economists believe both government and private aid pledged is not enough to offset the adverse consequences of Beijing's minor presence in the relief operations.

Economists Liu Qun and Liu Feng with the Shanghai-based Fudan University have suggested that China offers favourable yuan loans to the affected countries to aid the rebuilding of their tsunami-damaged infrastructure.

'Unlike the western Marshal plan for Asia, our help extended through Chinese yuan loans would not carry any political conditions,' the scholars wrote in the 'Southern Weekend.' 'Also, as the Chinese yuan already enjoys great acceptance in the region as a currency, that would benefit both China and the affected countries in Southeast Asia.'

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Albion Monitor January 19, 2005 (

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