In Departure, China Invites Outside Help

Copyright The New York Times
Published: May 16, 2008
MIANYANG, China — With the death toll from this week’s earthquake rising rapidly, China has departed from past diplomatic practice, seeking disaster relief experts and heavy equipment needed for rescue operations from neighbors it has long shunned as rivals or renegades.
Officials on Thursday asked a longtime rival, Japan, to send 60 earthquake rescue experts, the first such team China has accepted from a foreign country during the current crisis and one of the few official relief missions China has ever accepted from abroad. This week it also accepted help from at least three private relief teams from Taiwan, the self-governing island with which China has long had tense relations.
On Friday, access was extended to teams from Russia, South Korea and Singapore.
The decision to seek outside help reflects the fact that the search for survivors of Monday’s massive earthquake and the struggle to accommodate hundreds of thousands of displaced people from the mountainous region around the epicenter of the quake are too much for China to handle all alone, even after it mobilized 130,000 army soldiers, security forces and medics for relief work.
But the selective invitations to Japan and Taiwan — some foreign nations that have offered aid have so far been told that their services are not needed — may also show that China sees disaster relief as a tactical tool to improve ties with neighbors and soften its international image ahead of the Olympic Games in Beijing in August.
China is struggling to provide humanitarian aid to the hundreds of thousands left homeless even as it tries to increase search-and-rescue efforts for 40,000 buried or missing people scattered across remote villages in the serpentine valleys of Sichuan Province.
Officials estimated Thursday that the death toll, now nearly 20,000, could rise to 50,000. Doctors say those who are alive but buried are running out of time.
In his first visit since the disaster, President Hu Jintao flew into Sichuan on Friday. He called for relief efforts to be stepped up and said rescue work had entered its “most crucial phase,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Many of the troops involved in rescue efforts appear to have little training in disaster relief and lack proper tools and equipment. On Thursday, in the devastated county seat of Beichuan, thousands of People’s Liberation Army soldiers stood around with little to do. Some languidly picked at the rubble with their hands, unequipped with power tools to drill or saw through debris.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who is being portrayed in the Chinese media as exercising minute-to-minute supervision of the effort, sent 100 more helicopters to ferry supplies and workers into areas inaccessible by road.
The government also issued a detailed request for equipment needed to clear mountain roads. The list included thousands of pieces of earth-moving equipment, mechanized hammers, shovels and cranes, as well as satellite communications technology.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Thursday that China so far had received pledges of $100 million in international disaster aid and $10 million in relief materials.
The three Taiwanese groups invited to participate in relief operations are the Red Cross and two Buddhist organizations without government ties. One of the Buddhist groups, Tzu Chi, had been granted permission a while ago to do charity work on the mainland. Charter planes carrying relief supplies from Taiwan have also been allowed to fly directly to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. Because of their long history of political rivalry and tension, China and Taiwan do not have regular direct flights.
One Chinese relief official called the invitations to a relatively small number of overseas teams “rescue diplomacy.” China has been eager to secure international good will in what has so far been a trying diplomatic year for the country, with crises involving Tibet, human rights and pressure to reduce support for the Sudanese government.
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