Within hours of a tsunami wiping out villages and towns of the Andaman Sea coastline, Washington, Canberra, Brussels and Tokyo started dispatching relief missions and writing checks. But this time a new player made its first serious appearance on the international disaster recovery scene: China.
Although only 3 Mainlanders died and 13 were injured, with 7 missing at writing, Beijing dispatched medical-rescue teams and committed US$65m in cash and aid, chipping in another $20m at an international aid meeting in Jakarta, with possibly more to come.
With earthquakes and floods staples of life, China has skills to offer in disaster relief. Ordinary Chinese, now better informed about the world than ever before due to more media competition and the Internet, also dipped into their pockets, handing over more than US$20m at writing.
Off to summit
Premier Wen Jiabao readily agreed to meet with other leaders in Jakarta (Indonesia alone lost 100,000) to discuss what China and other countries could do to help with rebuilding over the long term.
"China, like the other donor countries who have come forth with assistance for the tsunami-affected countries, understands that beyond the urgent need for humanitarian relief is the more challenging business of restoring infrastructure and rebuilding communities," said Melissa Fossberg, an external affairs officer with the World Bank in Washington.
China's tsunami largesse reflects its shift from a passive foreign policy to one that is more pro-active – which has meant taking some unpredictable bulls by the horns, such as North Korean nuclear weapons, global terrorism and, of course, trade. (It also reflects the fact that Chinese tourists are increasingly found on beaches around the world, a new and significant trend.)
There have previously been small aid payments for other disasters – less than $2m for Iran's Bam earthquake in 2003 and about $0.1m for the 1999 Turkish earthquake – while Chinese soldiers have started donning UN blue berets in Africa, Haiti and elsewhere over the last decade.
But the tsunami response suggests China, working steadily and slowly towards becoming a global power, has realized that flipping open its wallet in times of need is a good way to win friends and influence people.
"China is trying to establishing itself as an international citizen. It has implications on gaining access to natural resources in the region and support on the cross-strait issues," said Hui Cheung-Tai, an economist with Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong.
It still has a long way to go in terms of establishing a role as pre-eminent regional benefactor, of course, compared to Japan's speedy decision to donate US$500m.
China devoted most of its relief effort to the three countries most affected – Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. It doesn't hurt China to strengthen friendship with all three. Sri Lanka is small and distant, but Thailand and Indonesia are both countries that loom large in China's southern strategies.
Beijing planners draw roads and railways on their maps south from Yunnan to Thailand's deep-sea ports. And Bangkok, while still smiling sweetly at Washington, is fluttering its eyelashes at Beijing with good reason. Many Thai politicians and blue chips have big investments there. Currying favor with the biggest guy on the block makes a lot of sense.
And there is Indonesia, with its vast reserves of oil, gas, timber and an Aladdin's Cave of shiny metals and jewels. Indonesia's 220m people, too poor to make a serious market for Nokias, Sonys and Whirlpools, also represent an attractive market for China's more affordable exports.
Experience on the ground
Markets aside, China has much to contribute but also much to learn from getting more involved in international relief. Experience gained in observing and working with other teams can only help China improve its own lamentable disaster response machinery.
This is an increasing priority with Beijing. The SARS epidemic in 2003 was a big wake-up call. Since then, it has redoubled efforts to tackle other social ills, especially HIV/Aids. China is also upgrading equipment and skills, developing, for example, all-weather, 24-hour, maritime search-and-rescue – and using US-made helicopters, something rare beyond the West. There are even signs that Beijing is starting to take mine safety issues seriously.
History shows how far China has come. In 1976, another earthquake hit the city of Tangshan to the southeast of Beijing and killed 242,000 people. China, then still wallowing in self-reliance, refused every single offer of aid.
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