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China yet to deploy 'substantial' navy to aid Philippines

As international relief efforts get underway in the Philippines following the devastation caused by typhoon Haiyan, superpower China's contribution has been disproportionately low.

Beijing yesterday offered $100,000 in cash, a figure that seems modest compared with its other recent contributions for humanitarian relief abroad, the New York Times reported.

Asked if the donation was scaled according to the current chill in relations between China and the Philippines, Qin Gang, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to answer, the New York Times said.

(Read more: Storm surge in Philippines: 'It was like a tsunami')

Ties between China and the Philippines have been rocky, strained by disputes over the resource-rich South China Sea, most of which Beijing claims as its maritime territory.

A general view from the damaged control tower of the airport shows a C-130 aircraft (L) taking part in evacuation operations in Tacloban.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ | AFP | Getty Images
A general view from the damaged control tower of the airport shows a C-130 aircraft (L) taking part in evacuation operations in Tacloban.

Although the world's second-largest economy has beefed up its 'blue-water' navy enabling it to deliver humanitarian assistance to disaster-hit areas in Asia, China hasn't signaled that it will commit this formidable sea-borne platform to support aid operations after typhoon Haiyan killed an estimated 10,000 people when it swept through central Philippines on Friday.

(Read more: Health crisis after deadly typhoon in Philippines)

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) - the world's largest military – does have a lot of assets to offer, according to Rory Medcalf, Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia, not least of all a fully-equipped navy hospital ship called the 'Peace Ark' launched in 2007.

The ship has 300 hospital beds, eight operating rooms and 107 medical workers, including doctors and nurses.

"The PLA now has substantial maritime assets that can be turned towards disaster relief," Medcalf said in blog post on Monday entitled 'Typhoon Haiyan and the geopolitics of disaster relief'.

(Read more: Will super typhoon derail Philippines' economy?)

The vessel is "now used as a major platform for Chinese diplomacy, in ways the U.S. Navy would recognize from its own long tradition," said Medcalf, a former senior strategic analyst in Australia's Office of National Assessments intelligence agency.

(Watch now: Philippines' Tacloban city ravaged by waves)

'Outside support'

The hospital ship visited at least six Asian countries including Brunei, Maldives, Pakistan and Myanmar earlier this year during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief joint exercises before returning to eastern China on October 12.

Manila has appealed for international assistance to back up its own military who are stretched thin and whose bases were hit.

"We need outside support," Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala told CNBC on Monday. "Our troops were also affected. We have to integrate international efforts within our own efforts."

(Watch now: 'Any help is truly welcome:' Philippines military)

If Beijing does ultimately decide to deploy Chinese military expertise and hardware to help the Philippines, it may signal a pragmatic step forward in its regional policy and could be seen as an attempt to diffuse tensions.

"What Beijing does next will be an important sign of how sensible, capable and magnanimous a power Xi Jinping's China is going to be when it comes to regional diplomacy," explained Medcalf, who has studied the geopolitical ramifications of disaster relief and how the projection of so-called 'soft-power' has changed.

What form any Chinese support may take, the conditionality attached to any aid and whether Manila consents are just a few of the complex questions that diplomats must tackle before help can be shipped out, he said.

China does have the potential to be a highly important "future donor and actor in the humanitarian aid field," Mathias Eick, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid (ECHO) Regional Information Officer for East and Southeast Asia, Pacific Region told CNBC.

(Watch now: Philippines central bank: Inflation may rise)

The English-language edition of the Global Times, a paper run by state-run People's Daily, called for China to set aside lingering political differences with the Philippines and assist the disaster-stricken neighboring country like a "responsible power".

"China shouldn't be absent in the international relief efforts," the newspaper said in a front page op-ed published on its website on Tuesday entitled 'Islands spat shouldn't block typhoon aid'.

"Aid to the typhoon victims…is totally different from foreign aid in the past made out of geopolitical concerns," it continued. "Overseas Chinese in the Philippines played an active part to mobilize relief efforts when the mainland was in disaster. It's legitimate that we provide assistance when they suffer."

In the meantime, it is the search and rescue teams of the U.S. military who are the 'first responders', strengthening Washington's pivot towards Asia.

"At a time when American power and purpose in Asia are being questioned, it will also be noticed as a reminder that the forward-deployed American military is still the first and fastest responder to contingencies of any kind," said the Lowy Institute's Medcalf.

The aircraft carrier USS George Washington, currently in Hong Kong, is scheduled to sail to the Philippines with a support group of six additional ships to boost the relief effort on orders from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

(Read more: How to help Typhoon Haiyan survivors)

The group is expected to reach the Philippines "in 2 to 3 days depending on sea states and speed," CDR Steven Curry, a Hawaii-based spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet told CNBC.

By CNBC's Sri Jegarajah. Follow him on Twitter: @cnbcSri

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