HONG KONG (Reuters) - China is sending a state-of-the-art hospital ship to the Philippines following criticism that it was slow and stingy in its response to one of the world's biggest typhoons, which killed at least 4,000 people.
The Foreign Ministry in Beijing confirmed on Tuesday the deployment of the 14,000-tonne "Peace Ark" as state television reported the arrival of the first batch of Chinese relief supplies in the Philippines.
The Ark's exact area of operations and time of arrival have not been confirmed, but spokesman Hong Lei said it would set sail on Thursday.
"We hope that this action can alleviate the current situation in the Philippines, which is lacking doctors and medicine, and reflect the Chinese people's friendly feelings for the people of the Philippines," Hong said.
China's emergency medical rescue team of 51 people leaves on Wednesday, Hong said, adding that the Red Cross Society of China was sending two batches of international rescue teams, with a first group of 16 having already left and a second group of 14 set to leave on Friday.
"China has always been concerned about the Philippines typhoon disaster," Hong said in an earlier statement.
Tension between China and the Philippines has risen in recent months over disputed claims in the South China Sea, with Manila taking Beijing to a United Nations court to challenge its historic claim to much of the strategic waterway.
China's usually hawkish Global Times, a tabloid owned by the government mouthpiece, the People's Daily, last week urged the deployment of the Ark amid criticism of Beijing's response by foreign commentators.
China, the world's second-largest economy, initially announced it was giving $200,000 and then bumped that up by $1.6 million. On Sunday, it said it was ready to send rescue and medical teams.
In contrast, the United States has mobilised about 50 ships and aircraft in the disaster zone, with helicopters delivering supplies from an aircraft carrier. It has announced more than $37 million in humanitarian aid.
Armed forces and aid agencies are struggling to get help to devastated areas in the Philippines, where the typhoon has left more than four million people homeless.
The Ark will join an international flotilla of naval ships now delivering food, water and medicine to victims of Typhoon Haiyan, which tore across the central Philippine on November 8, smashing just about everything in its path.
The ship, outfitted with 300 hospital beds, eight operating theatres and a medical staff of 100, recently returned to Shanghai after an unprecedented four-month deployment to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, where treated thousands of patients at several goodwill stops.
A Chinese cargo plane carrying tents and blankets landed in the central Philippine city of Cebu on Tuesday, broadcaster CCTV said.
"The Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development head has said the Chinese relief goods are very useful," Chinese embassy official Wu Zhenping told the station.
"They will distribute some goods to evacuated victims in Cebu and the rest to victims in the worst-hit area, Tacloban." (Additional reporting by Alice Woodhouse and Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)