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Politics & Government

China Sends 'Peace Ark' To Philippines Via Choppy Political Seas


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

China is sending a state-of-the art hospital ship to help typhoon victims in the Philippines. This comes after widespread criticism that an earlier offer of aid was stingy. China, the world's second-largest economy, initially pledged a total of just $200,000. By way of comparison, IKEA has pledged more than 10 times that amount.

For more on what's behind China's boost in aid, we turn to NPR Shanghai correspondent Frank Langfitt, who is in Manila. And, Frank, why did China initially offer so little help to the Philippines?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, the theory is that it has a fair bit to do with geopolitics. And people tend to think it's about bitterness over a dispute with the Philippines over islands in the South China Sea. You know, China is a rising power, and they've been making aggressive claims to islands with many countries, including Vietnam and Brunei. But the Philippines has really tried to stand up to them and incidentally, done so believing and hoping that the Philippines' biggest ally, the United States, will back them up. So this lowball aid was kind of seen as a way of tweaking the Philippines.

SIEGEL: And how did the Chinese people react to their government's rather paltry initial offer of aid?

LANGFITT: Well, it was mixed. If you look at online polls, actually a lot of people were against giving aid to the Philippines. One of the things that they did was they cited this island dispute. They also - some people don't think it's really appropriate. Despite the incredible economic growth here, many Chinese are still relatively poor. And a lot of Chinese feel that the government should spend money on its own people and spend money at home.

There was some criticism of the government, very public and from a really interesting source, Robert. Came from Global Times - it's a conservative, patriotic state-run paper. And it criticized the government for essentially a soft power fail. Here's the editorial. This is the line from the editorial: A twisted relationship between the two countries caused by maritime disputes is not a reason to block joint efforts to combat a natural disaster.

And basically what it was saying is if China wasn't going to give more money, it was going to make China look really bad. And after a lot of the criticism, China did up aid to about $1.6 million.

SIEGEL: And speaking of soft power, what can you tell us about the hospital ship that the Chinese are sending to the Philippines?

LANGFITT: Well, from all I've read it's very nice. It's big. It's 14,000 tons. It's called the Peace Ark. It has 300 beds, eight operating theaters. And a lot of people, of course, in addition to the thousands who died, there's many, many, you know, tons of injuries out there. And so, the hospital ship, I'm not sure when it's going to set sail, they haven't said, but certainly would be very welcome in helping some of the typhoon victims.

SIEGEL: Frank, you mentioned the geopolitics of the region. The U.S. is sending a lot of aid, including a fleet of ships including the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. How does that fit into the geopolitics of the region?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, this is sort of expected in the sense that the United States has made major efforts out here before with natural disasters; you can think of the Indonesian tsunami in 2004. But there is a political benefit for the U.S. You know, the U.S. and China, as we've talked about before, are competing for future influence out here in East Asia, and almost everybody in the region is worried about China's really rapid rise.

China is pouring a lot of money into its navy and arguing over these islands. And many countries out here would like to see the U.S. counterbalance. But, of course, they're unsure. I mean given the fiscal problems in Washington - even though the U.S. Navy has dominated the western Pacific for decades - they're not quite sure. People aren't sure there's staying power. And so, sending an aircraft carrier reminds people that the U.S. is still here and still has this indispensable role that it plays militarily and certainly in terms of aid, out here in East Asia.

SIEGEL: Of course, perhaps ironically, the Philippines used to be home to some of the biggest U.S. naval bases in the world.

LANGFITT: You know, they were and the relation out here have been mixed over the years. But right now, I think with China's rise, the United States military is probably more popular than it's been in many, many years.

SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR's Frank Langfitt, our Shanghai correspondent, speaking to us today from Manila. Frank, thanks.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.