By Greg Torode
HONG KONG (Reuters) - China is sending a state-of-the-art hospital ship to the Philippines following foreign and domestic criticism that it was slow and less than generous 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.
Exactly where the Ark will operate and when it will arrive have not yet been confirmed, but Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the Ark would set sail as soon as possible.
"China has always been concerned about the Philippines typhoon disaster," he said. "In the spirit of helping the dying and healing the injured, we plan to send rescue workers to the disaster area."
Tension between China and the Philippines had 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 mobilized 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 following the widespread destruction in the Philippines, which 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 Ark, outfitted with 300 hospital beds and eight operating theatres and a medical staff numbering 100, recently returned to Shanghai after an unprecedented four-month deployment to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean where it made several goodwill stops, treating thousands of patients.
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)