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China £1.25m aid vow dents image

The outpouring of international aid to the Philippines makes China's pledge of less than two million dollars (£1.25m) in cash and materials for typhoon relief look like a trickle.

The offer by the world's second-largest economy compares to 20 million dollars (£12.5m) provided by the United States, which also launched a massive military-driven rescue operation that includes an aircraft carrier.

Another Chinese rival, Japan, has pledged 10 million dollars (£6.25m) and announced it is sending 1,000 troops, ships and planes. Australia is giving 28 million dollars (£17.5m) , and even Swedish furniture chain Ikea's offer of 2.7 million dollars (£1.7m) through its charitable foundation beats China's.

China's reluctance to give more - driven by a bitter feud with Manila over overlapping claims in the South China Sea - dents its global image at a time when it is vying with Washington for regional influence.

"China has missed an excellent opportunity to show itself as a responsible power and to generate goodwill," said Zheng Yongnian, a China politics expert at the National University of Singapore. "They still lack strategic thinking."

The decline of American influence in Asia, with China filling the vacuum, has been predicted for years. Asian nations have become increasingly dependent on China's booming economy to buy their exports, and Chinese companies are increasingly providers of investment and employment.

Yet, China lags far behind the US in the sphere of soft power - the winning of hearts and minds through culture, education, and other non-traditional forms of diplomacy, of which emergency assistance is a major component.

Despite Chinese academics' frequent promotion of soft power, Chinese leaders don't really get it, said Mr Zheng. Instead, they continue to rely on the levers of old-fashioned major-nation diplomacy based on economic and military might. "They still think they can get their way through coercion," he said.

China's donations to the Philippines include 100,000 dollars (£62,000) each from the government and the Chinese Red Cross, and it is sending an additional 1.64 million dollars (£1m) in tents, blankets and other goods.

Beijing's tepid response to the disaster shows how its feud with Manila over territory is affecting all areas of its interactions with the Philippines.

Though Beijing's sea claims overlap with Vietnam and others, it has singled out the Philippines. Beijing was enraged by Manila's decision to send the dispute to international arbitration and constantly rails against its close military alliance with the US.

China's generosity with the Philippines hasn't entirely dried up. It pledged 80,000 dollars to the Philippines last month following a major earthquake there, in addition to this week's pledges. And President Xi Jinping expressed his sympathy to his Philippine counterpart Benigno Aquino in the latest disaster, although a five full days later and without mentioning assistance.

Chinese leaders are notoriously sensitive to public opinion on foreign affairs. On the Chinese Internet, the chief outlet for such expression, sentiment is strongly against providing aid.

"Why should we donate to the Philippines so that they can arm themselves with warships and aircraft? Is the Philippines a country that understands gratitude? Didn't we show our warm heart to the country? What did we get from that? Nothing," Fu Yao, a popular maker of micro-films, wrote on his miniblog.

Zhu Feng, an international relations expert, said the amount donated "reflects the political deadlock, if not outright hostility, between the two countries. The political atmosphere is the biggest influence."

An additional factor could be China is a relative newcomer to overseas disaster relief. The country sent tents and a medical mission to hardest-hit Aceh province in Indonesia after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and government and public donations ranged in the millions of dollars.

Since then, China's participation has been mainly limited to assisting close ally Pakistan with flood and earthquake relief and some help to foreign nationals fleeing Libya during an unprecedented mission to evacuate 30,000 of its citizens from the war-torn nation.

When China has suffered natural disasters itself, it has largely handled them on its own. China has considerable capacity to do so and depends on its own military, the world's largest. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, for example, it only accepted token foreign aid. The Philippines offered a medical team and emergency supplies, but China declined that and other offers at the time.

AP

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