BEIJING – One of the world's trickiest relationships is being tested in devastated Haiti, where China and Taiwan are rushing aid to one of Taipei's few remaining diplomatic allies. Taiwan even announced that its president would personally deliver earthquake aid later this month.
But while the aid to Haiti comes with large Chinese flags on display, analysts say it has no apparent strings attached, thanks to improved relations between the two sides and China's settling into its role of global power and the responsibilities that come with it.
"What's really interesting here is that China apparently is providing Haiti with assistance without making any demands regarding Haiti's relationship with Taiwan," said Taiwan scholar Shelley Rigger of North Carolina's Davidson College.
A cargo plane left Beijing on Saturday carrying $2 million of China's promised $4.2 million aid package for the quake-hit island, with which it has no diplomatic ties.
State-run Chinese media has devoted pages of coverage to the quake, and China Central Television reported Friday that the Chinese rescue team was the only one working overnight to look for those trapped in the rubble.
Instead of tussling with Taiwan, a newly confident China probably sees the quake as a chance to project its "soft power" to a wider audience, said China expert Steve Tsang of Oxford University. "From Beijing's perspective, it is desirable not to be overshadowed by Taiwan's rescue efforts and relatively easy and inexpensive to play a positive humanitarian role in the, as it were, backyard of the U.S.A."
Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is one of just 23 countries that recognize Taiwan. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is expected to land in the neighboring Dominican Republic, another Taiwan supporter, to deliver the Haiti aid sometime between Jan. 25-30. Taiwan has already pledged $5 million.
China has used aid in the past to try and pressure Haiti to break its Taiwan ties, Rigger said. And when they sent United Nations peacekeepers to Haiti in 2004, many assumed part of that mission was to court Haiti to recognize Beijing.
China's approach this time may have to do with the improving relations with Taiwan since Ma took office 20 months ago with the aim of toning down the hostile relations between China and his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian.
One of China's major victories when Chen was president was convincing longtime Taiwan ally Costa Rica to switch sides.
Since Ma came to power in May 2008, however, China and Taiwan have made what many call a "diplomatic truce," putting the wrestling over diplomatic recognition aside. Taiwan has also stopped trying to use aid to win recognition from countries.
It is also possible China's rapid and visible response to the Haiti disaster may be far more simple: Beijing is recognizing that "politicizing this horrific tragedy would be wrong at every level," Rigger said.
China is still raw from its May 2009 earthquake in southwestern Sichuan province, which left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman on Saturday said the aid was not political.
"When China suffered from the Sichuan earthquake, other countries offered aid. Now we can help," she said. She didn't give her name, citing ministry policy.
"China is a big country and it is shouldering its humanitarian responsibilities," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at People's University in Beijing. "Among ordinary Chinese, no one talks about whether we have diplomatic ties with Haiti when talking about the aid."
China's approach would have been different if Chen were still power in Taiwan, Tsang said. "Beijing would have used this as an opportunity to outsmart and outshine Taipei, and possibly see if it can build up momentum to persuade Haiti to switch recognition."
Still, it might be too soon to determine China's intentions in Haiti, one Taiwan-based expert warned.
"They have no incentives to launch a diplomatic war for now, but we have to watch after the situation stabilizes," said Kan Yi-hua, a professor of diplomacy at Taiwan's National Chengchi University.
But China has been busy finding its role on global issues such as the financial crisis and climate change, and it sounds like it has more pressing concerns.
"It's of no importance for China to establish diplomatic ties with one more, or one less, small country," said Zhu Feng, a professor with Peking University's School of International Studies. "If some say China sending this aid is on political grounds, that's absurd."
Huang reported from Taipei. Associated Press researcher Henry Hou in Beijing contributed to this report.