For all the talk of an America in decline and a rising China, the crisis in Haiti is a reminder of the huge disparity that still exists in the two countries' abilities to project power for military and humanitarian purposes.
The United States was quick to react to the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton putting off her Asian trip to deal with the crisis. President Barack Obama said: "To the people of Haiti, we say clearly, and with conviction, you will not be forsaken; you will not be forgotten. In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you. The world stands with you."
Washington sent the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to Haiti as well as three amphibious ships and a hospital ship - in all, about 10,000 troops.
China was also quick to offer aid, but the disparity was striking. A 50-member Chinese rescue team arrived in Port-au-Prince two days after the earthquake, with three rescue dogs and 20 tonnes of equipment and humanitarian aid. The Chinese rescue workers focused their efforts on United Nations headquarters, where Chinese peacekeepers and officials had been meeting with Hédi Annabi, the top UN official in Haiti. They recovered Mr. Annabi's body and those of eight Chinese.
The United States dominated the relief effort. Washington felt obliged to emphasize that it had "no intention of supplanting the leadership of Haiti." However, the Haitian government clearly was in no position to respond to the crisis. On Friday, U.S. ambassador Ken Merten and UN special representative Edmond Mulet signed a co-ordination agreement between the United States and Haiti without any Haitian government representative present.
The bodies of the eight Chinese - four peacekeepers and members of a delegation from the Ministry of Public Security - were flown back to Beijing, where they were honoured as heroes and mourned in an elaborate memorial attended by President Hu Jintao. Many Chinese reports on Haiti linked the disaster with the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. People in Sichuan were quoted as saying that they wanted to go personally to help the Haitians.
Because the rescue workers dispatched by Beijing focused on the missing Chinese, some accused China of only being interested in rescuing its own nationals. This was strongly rebutted, and Beijing announced Sunday it was sending a 40-member medical care and epidemic prevention team, along with 20 tonnes of medical supplies. Nonetheless, the world's second-largest economy has come in for criticism for its relatively small amount of aid.
John Bolton, former U.S. envoy to the UN, ridiculed the idea that China could replace the United States. "Nobody looks to China to be a source of humanitarian assistance," he told Fox News. "… They look at the United States."
Mr. Bolton accused China of not providing more because Haiti has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, rather than Beijing. He challenged China to at least match Taiwan's donations. (As of late last week, Taiwan had sent $5-million (U.S.) in aid while China had pledged $4.4-million.)
China has made dramatic inroads in Central and South America in recent years. It is clearly interested in seeing that its image does not suffer because of Haiti, especially as U.S. stature improves. This concern was clear in an article published in the online edition of the People's Daily, which speculated that Washington will "take this opportunity to expand its influence on countries to its south."
China has turned into a key competitor to the United States in many realms, but in providing humanitarian aid, it is not in the same league - not yet. As China continues to rise, it must develop a disaster relief policy and make clear that the world can also look to Beijing for help.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer.