China's plan to assert itself as a world power at this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing did not include months of headlines about tainted food and counterfeit drugs, or weeks of worldwide protests over Tibetan independence. But the country's image may get a boost after its swift reaction to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Myanmar in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, experts told ABC News.com.
China pledged $1 million in cash and supplies to Myanmar, formerly Burma, devastated by a storm that hit the country's largest city and food producing regions Saturday. Some 22,000 people are believed dead, 41,000 missing and as many as 1 million homeless in the Southeast Asian country, according to estimates by the United Nations.
"China and Myanmar are good neighbors. We believe the people of Myanmar can overcome the obstacles caused by the cyclone and recover their losses as soon as possible," Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry told reporters Tuesday.
China, in recent years, has become an economic powerhouse, and has increasingly looked to parlay its financial heft into geopolitical prominence, courting developing countries and earning Western scorn for its attitudes on human rights. With the eyes of the world trained on China in the lead up to the August games, many of the country's critics have used the Olympics and the ongoing torch relay to protest the country's support of Sudan, and occupation of Tibet.
"China can look at Myanmar and say: 'Here is a chance to improve our public relations. Here is a chance to bolster our message that our rise is peaceful and that we are a responsible stakeholder in the region and the world," said Adam Segal, a senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Traditionally, China does not give a lot of foreign aid. One million dollars does not sound like much, but we'll have to wait and see if more is to come," Segal said.
China is in a particularly good position to help, experts said. Myanmar, ruled by a military junta since 1963, has been a pariah state for decades that has spurned, and been spurned by much of the international community. China's Communist regime, however, has remained a staunch ally of its neighbor, and as a result, been granted access to Myanmar's bountiful natural resources.
While China might get a public relations boost for helping Myanmar, it is far from the reason it has decided to help out, experts said.
From Myanmar, China gets natural gas and hardwoods to fuel its growing economy. Myanmar also offers China strategic economic and military access to the Andaman Sea and points west toward India and the Middle East.
"Burma is a special case for China," said Nayan Chanda, director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. "China would have given assistance in any case, so I wouldn't say China helped Burma for the PR. The Chinese are building a pipeline from Burma's coast to Yunnan province, and they want to protect their interests. China certainly gave more to the Burmese than, perhaps, they would have given another country.
"Given how much China relies on Burma, it is almost automatic that it would offer assistance," he said.
Yangon, formerly Rangoon, is the country's largest city and was hit hardest by the cyclone.
China's aid to Myanmar might not win over many Western critics, but Western critics are not China's target audience, said Bill Kirby, a China expert and history professor at Harvard University.
"Burma's performance was poor, both in warning its people about the immediate danger and in its response after the cyclone hit. It's a good sign that China stepped into a leadership position in its part of the world," said Kirby.
"It is a good sign that China was helpful quickly. If you compare the China of today with the China of several decades ago, China acts much more like other countries than different. It is a healthy sign that it is among the countries taking the lead. It is right and proper that it do so for a country on its doorstep," Kirby added.
"The aid has more to do with making an impression, and how it wants to be perceived by its neighbors, than how it wants to be perceived in the broader international community, in terms of the Olympics," he said.
By comparison to China's offer of $1 million, the U.S. initially offered $250,000 in aid and assistance to Burma.
On Tuesday, President Bush increased that offer by $3 million, provided the junta accepts the money from a president who has been a vocal critic of the military regime, and which turned down U.S. offers of aid following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
"Our message is to the military rulers. Let the United States come and help you, help the people," Bush told reporters.