China this month pledged a total of $83 million in aid to Asian nations devastated by last month's tsunami, embarking on what Beijing says is its largest foreign relief operation ever. The amount is small when compared to that contributed by richer nations such as Australia, Japan, and the United States. But the package highlights China's growing profile in Southeast Asia.
The $83 million figure may be small when compared to the half-billion dollars that Japan's government is donating and the 350 million pledged by the United States. But Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao says China is helping to the best of its ability as a poor, developing country.
Many Chinese until now have viewed their nation as an aid recipient, not a donor. However, rising incomes pushed by China's economic boom have made it possible for the nation to make its unprecedented aid donations, both public and private.
The Chinese Red Cross says it has collected $12 million, the most money ever gathered in China for an overseas relief effort. Rich and poor are giving, and donations range from $1.2 million from a software entrepreneur to one dollar from this 50-year-old woman who works as a housemaid in Beijing.
"My heart was so sad when I saw this natural disaster could kill so many people. This disaster is so big that, even though I do not have that much money, I had to give a little donation. I had to help," she said.
Analysts say China stands to gain substantially from its gestures of good will to its Southeast Asian neighbors, many of which are leery that China is on its way to dominating regional trade.
Politics professor Paul Harris at Hong Kong's Lingnan University says so Beijing is exerting soft power in the region.
"It's trying to convey the message that we're a normal great power. The so-called peaceful rise of China is not something to be concerned about, and we are concerned about our neighbors. We are a part of this East Asian community and you can trust us and view us as your friend,'" prof. Harris said.
Southeast Asia has historically been wary of its giant neighbor to the north.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, was originally founded to shield the region from Chinese Communist expansionism. However, the relationship has changed dramatically over the years. Recently, trade between China and ASEAN has risen by 20 percent each year, reaching an estimated $100 billion in 2004.
Li Nan is a researcher at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University who says China has been careful not to show itself as being overly aggressive toward its neighbors.
"There is a high level of sensitivity on the issue of sovereignty," he said. "So in essence, China has been very sensitive about the issue to the point it did not deploy substantial military capabilities for tsunami relief."
China's military aid has been limited to only 35 military personnel, mostly medics and engineers, sent to Indonesia.
There are analysts who note the modest military contribution is also due to China's limited capabilities in long-distance operations.
However, some criticize China, saying its contribution of $83 million is too small for a nation of its size with a booming economy. At the same time, Chinese leaders are under pressure from some of its citizens at home who wonder aloud why China, with millions of people living on less than a dollar a day, is giving aid at all.
Politics professor Lai Hongyi at the National University of Singapore says the Chinese leadership has taken a measured approach.
"I think the Chinese government also has realized that the nation's level of development does not justify a huge amount and they're not giving a huge amount of aid, just giving a large amount," he said. "So overall, it's a good balance between giving too much and, regarding its economic capacity and its level of development, or being stingy if its neighbors are in deep trouble and need a lot of help."
Amid international criticism for its comparatively low contribution, Chinese newspapers have been rife with editorials lashing back at rich countries that have made substantial donations, especially the United States and Japan, nations that have historically wielded influence in the region.
One editorial written by a scholar at a state-sponsored policy institute accused industrialized nations of playing a game of political chess in the tsunami affected zone.
Others have blasted the United States and Japan for using their militaries as part of their relief operations in the region. Editorials have accused both nations of working to consolidate their regional influence under the guise of providing aid.
At the same time, Indonesia, hardest hit by the tsunami, has repeatedly thanked foreign nations for deploying military help so quickly, as large navies and air forces have the necessary equipment in abundance to provide clean water, electricity and deliver food and medical supplies to inaccessible and devastated regions.