China's meagre aid to the Philippines could dent its image

Reuters

(Repeats story first sent on Tuesday, no change to text)

By Megha Rajagopalan

BEIJING, Nov 12 (Reuters) - China may have wasted the chanceto build goodwill in Southeast Asia with its relatively paltrydonation to the Philippines in the wake of a devastatingtyphoon, especially with the United States sending an aircraftcarrier and Japan ramping up aid.

The world's second-largest economy is a growing investor inSoutheast Asia, where it is vying with the United States andJapan for influence. But China's assertiveness in pressing itsclaim to the disputed South China Sea has strained ties withseveral regional countries, most notably the Philippines.

China's government has promised $100,000 in aid to Manila,along with another $100,000 through the Chinese Red Cross - farless than pledged by other economic heavyweights.

Japan has offered $10 million in aid and is sending in an emergency relief team, for instance, while Australia has donated$9.6 million.

"The Chinese leadership has missed an opportunity to showits magnanimity," said Joseph Cheng, a political scienceprofessor at the City University of Hong Kong who focuses onChina's ties with Southeast Asia.

"While still offering aid to the typhoon victims, itcertainly reflects the unsatisfactory state of relations (withManila)."

China's ties with the Philippines are already fragile as adecades-old territorial squabble over the South China Sea entersa more contentious chapter, with claimant nations spreadingdeeper into disputed waters in search of energy supplies, whilebuilding up their navies.

Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of theSouth China Sea, making it one of the region's biggestflashpoints.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), a10-nation grouping that includes the Philippines, has beentalking to China about a binding code of conduct in South ChinaSea to ease the friction, but Beijing's frugal aid hints at adeeply entrenched rivalry that could make forging consensusdifficult.

Even China's state-run Global Times newspaper, known for itsnationalistic and often hawkish editorial views, expressedconcern about the impact on Beijing's international standing.

"China, as a responsible power, should participate in reliefoperations to assist a disaster-stricken neighbouring country,no matter whether it's friendly or not," the paper said in acommentary.

"China's international image is of vital importance to itsinterests. If it snubs Manila this time, China will suffer greatlosses."

Super Typhoon Haiyan tore through the central Philippines onFriday and flattened the city of Tacloban, where officials fear10,000 people died. Officials fear the toll could rise sharplyas rescuers reach more isolated towns.

Overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, the Philippineshas sought international assistance.

The U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS GeorgeWashington, carrying about 5,000 sailors and more than 80aircraft, will arrive this week after setting sail from HongKong on Tuesday. It has been joined by four other U.S. Navyships.

The United States is also providing $20 million in immediateaid. Japan said it will give $10 million and send a small numberof soldiers and medical personnel.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China wouldconsider more aid as the situation developed, but did not saywhy Beijing had offered less than other countries.

"China has also suffered from the disaster, so we very muchunderstand and sympathise with the current hardships that thePhilippine people are facing," Qin told a regular briefing,referring to the deaths of at least seven people and $734million in economic losses when the much-weakened storm swipedChina's southern provinces.

"We are willing to consider providing more support and aidwithin our capacity as it goes."

Lye Liang Fook of the East Asian Institute in Singapore saidit was impossible to separate China's anger over territorialclaims from the question of disaster relief.

"Politically there is a lack of trust, and under thecircumstances, the fact that China is willing to extend aid isquite significant," he said. "The two issues are linked to eachother."

Comments on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter,overwhelmingly opposed China giving aid to the Philippines.

"For God's sake, give them nothing," wrote one user. "We'vegiven them enough in the past."

Cheng said public sentiment would factor into China'sdecision.

"I certainly think that relief and aid for natural disastersshould not be affected by political relations. But the Chineseauthorities are handicapped by domestic nationalist feelings aswell," he said. "China should have used the opportunity toimprove its image." (Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard. Editing by Dean Yates,Jason Szep and Nick Macfie)

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