ZHOUSHAN, China - A Chinese hospital ship set sail for the typhoon-ravaged Philippines Thursday, with foreign media given unprecedented access to a navy base as Beijing seeks to promote its aid effort nearly two weeks after the disaster.
The Peace Ark, a 300-bed floating navy medical facility, sounded its horn as it set off from a base on Zhoushan island, off the eastern province of Zhejiang.
It is expected to take three or four days to reach the Philippines, with which China is embroiled in a territorial row.
"We will make contributions to the relationship between both countries," Shen Hao, deputy chief of staff of the East China Sea Fleet and commander of the mission, told reporters allowed on board the vessel before it left.
"After we arrive, we will try our best to provide more and better (medical) services," he said.
The deployment of the ship, which was featured on the front page of China's state-run Global Times newspaper on Thursday, comes as the world's second-largest economy seeks to counter international criticism of its relief effort.
There is no sign outside the base announcing its identity, and officials said it was the first time foreign journalists had been allowed inside.
After an initial outlay of only US$100,000 (S$125,000), the Chinese government has gradually upped its aid over the past two weeks, contributing US$1.6 million worth of tents, blankets and other supplies.
Other Chinese organisations are also contributing, and a first crew of relief workers left on Wednesday, China's foreign ministry said, with more following in the next few days.
By contrast, Japan has contributed US$30 million to the Philippines, and the US has donated US$20 million. Even the Swedish furniture group Ikea's charitable foundation surpassed China's initial outlay with a US$2.7 million contribution to the UN children's agency UNICEF.
Rows of uniformed navy officers and sailors lined the quayside alongside the white hospital ship, which was flanked by naval warships in dock.
Medical personnel in blue camouflage uniforms waved from the Peace Ark's deck as it pulled away from port.
Sun Tao, head of the ship's hospital, said it had capacity for 300 patients and can handle eight simultaneous surgeries, with more than a hundred doctors and nurses onboard.
Doctors expect to handle disease caused by unsanitary conditions and paediatric cases, he said.
The ship is often featured in Chinese media and is a key instrument of "soft power" for Beijing, which regularly sends it to Asian and African ports to offer free operations.