“Tsunami exposes China’s limitations”

Interesting. China has promised lots of money to help the tsunami victims, but it is literally invisible in terms of onsite help. This is being interpreted (by some, at least) as a sign that China is still not a global player in terms of its skills and diplomatic capabilities.

To be sure, China has hardly been idle. It has promised $83 million in aid, and Chinese citizens have donated $18 million more. Premier Wen Jiabao attended last week’s relief summit in Indonesia, and China has sent supplies and a 14-member medical team to hard-hit Sri Lanka.

Yet those steps have barely registered in media coverage of the aftermath of the Dec. 26 disaster, rife with images of U.S., Australian, and other relief teams at work. The U.S. military is dominating aid efforts, and Japan has promised $500 million and nearly 1,000 troops to help out.

Even Singapore has 900 servicemen and women on the ground in Indonesia.

Analysts say China’s response exposes the limitations on its ability to help in such crises, along with the diplomatic costs of its aversion to foreign entanglements.

“China is rising in importance in Asian and world affairs, but its power, influence, and reach can easily be exaggerated,” said Robert Sutter, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at Georgetown University.

China’s absence wouldn’t seem so glaring if it didn’t follow a major foray into the region last year.

Wen was a central figure at November’s meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where the organization’s 10 member countries agreed to a landmark trade accord with China.

China has also made initiatives aimed at protecting vital sea lanes and securing a steady supply of oil and raw materials to fuel its booming economy. Vague agreements have been reached for cooperation in military training, health care, and tourism, while highways and railroads are planned to draw the regions even closer.

However, China’s civil and military bodies have little experience or capacity to deal with disasters far from its shores. Although Beijing has dispatched civilian peacekeepers to Haiti, Congo and other conflict areas, its forces are poorly equipped for humanitarian missions, especially thousands of miles from home.

China’s response also reflects its extreme caution when approaching overseas entanglements where the upside for China isn’t readily obvious.

Many Chinese still consider their country a poor nation that can’t afford to match Japan and the West in foreign aid, and the government is wary of getting in over its head. While pledges to boost trade carry little political cost, a major foreign relief effort would divert limited resources and could entail longer-term commitments.

Bradley Williams, a research fellow in political science at the National University of Singapore, said China had missed a golden opportunity to shore up Southeast Asian friendships.

“Getting more involved would have provided China with a perfect opportunity to show their more compassionate side and alleviate some of the concerns about their rising influence in the region,” said Williams.

China’s state-controlled media doesn’t see it that way.

The aid offerings “have caught the world’s attention and the people of China are proud of this,” the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily exclaimed with pride last week. “This shows that Chinese people are their true friends and also shows that China is a responsible big country.”

When they need to announce that they’re a “responsible big country,” it’s a good indication that they’re probably not.

The Discussion: 7 Comments

It could also have something to do with the slant of the US media. They had medical teams in Banda Aceh from almost the very beginning. Those SeaHawk helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln were pumped by the US media (and folks like Michelle Ma-ding-a-ling), but they were bringing wounded back to be treated at a Chinese tent clinic.

And Richard, would you say that when a government has to proclaim that it is a big generous country whose leader acts promptly in the face of crisis, that it probably is just a stingy self-absorbed homeland run by a guy who cowers in his hidey-hole for days and leaves his big powerful navy parked outside my window while the rest of the world acts?

January 12, 2005 @ 5:40 pm | Comment

Tom, the answer is Yes. Now tell us, what country are you referring to? (Just kidding.)

January 12, 2005 @ 6:23 pm | Comment

A side issue on China’s contributions–we gave through Xiufen’s school, and now I’m worried about how much of the personal contributions will actually make it past the grubby paws of local officials.

And Tom, the tawdry self-promotion of the US officials can’t erase the large benefits conveyed. I don’t know which is more disgusting; the self-congratulating, or the petty sniping at the overworked “stingy” meme, but I’m ashamed of both types of people who will use disaster relief for a stricken people as a political football.

January 12, 2005 @ 7:31 pm | Comment

Added to that, initially China promised only about 3 million US and the rumor goes that only after Taiwan pledged 50 million they upped their bid.
On the other hand I get the feeling that the ordinary Chinese has been donating, partly because all the Media attention and partly because they intend well. Still in the big game, called country politics, it seems the west is doing better internaionally PR wise. In the end of the day though only one thing matters. Whether or not all the promised money will be paid out. History shows that a promise a lot of times means 1/10 of a promise.

January 13, 2005 @ 12:36 am | Comment

The local Xiamen radio this morning reported (very basic translation and interpreting skills here) that teams in China had landed in, er, Sri Lanka I think, to help with relief efforts.

January 13, 2005 @ 1:13 am | Comment

Such article itself is a revelation of narcissism of AP. It’s the school yard “I got a pair of Nike, your are from Kamart” game all over again. What’s got lost is the true purpose of the effort. On the other hand, it does reveal some insecurity on the US part.

January 13, 2005 @ 8:05 pm | Comment

in chinese, it’s called Yi Yin, or spirit of a-Q

January 13, 2005 @ 8:10 pm | Comment

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