MIANYANG, China — With the death toll from this week's earthquake rising rapidly, China made a sharp departure from past diplomatic practice on Thursday, seeking disaster relief experts and heavy equipment needed for rescue operations from neighbors it has long shunned as rivals or renegades.
Officials asked a longtime rival, Japan, to send 60 earthquake rescue experts, the first such team it has taken from a foreign country during the current crisis and one of the few relief missions China has ever accepted from abroad. They also accepted help from two private rescue teams from Taiwan, the self-governing island with which China has long had tense relations.
The decision to seek outside help reflects the fact that the search for survivors of Monday's massive earthquake and the struggle to accommodate tens of thousands of displaced people from the mountainous region around the epicenter of the quake are too much for China to handle alone, even after it mobilized 130,000 army soldiers and medics for relief work.
But the selective invitations — some foreign nations that have offered aid have so far been told that their services are not needed — may also show that Beijing sees disaster relief as a tactical tool to improve ties with neighbors and soften its international image ahead of the Olympic Games in August.
China is still struggling to provide humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of homeless people even as it tries to ramp up search-and-rescue efforts for 40,000 buried or missing people scattered across remote villages in the serpentine valleys of Sichuan province.
Officials estimated Thursday that the death toll, at nearly 20,000, could rise to 50,000. Doctors say those who are alive but still buried cannot survive much longer, yet many of the troops involved in rescue efforts appear to have little training in disaster relief and lack proper tools and equipment.
Chinese President Hu Jintao flew today to Sichuan to support victims and express "appreciation to the public and cadres in the disaster zone," state media said. The government said it allocated $772-million for earthquake relief, according to the central bank's Web site, up sharply from a figure of $159-million two days ago.
State media said that rescuers had finally reached all 58 counties and townships severely damaged. Health officials said there have been no outbreaks of disease so far.
Buddhist groups help
A foreign ministry spokesman said Thursday that China had received pledges of $100-million in international disaster aid and $10-million in relief materials.
The two Taiwanese groups invited to participate rescue operations are both Buddhist organizations without official government ties, and one of them, Tzu Chi, has been granted permission for two relief flights directly into Chengdu, the capital of earthquake stricken Sichuan province. Because of their long history of political rivalry and tension, China and Taiwan do not have regular direct air connections.
One Chinese relief official called the invitations to a relatively small number of overseas teams "rescue diplomacy." China has been eager to secure international good will in what has so far been a trying diplomatic year for the country, with crises involving Tibet, human rights, and pressure to reduce support for the Sudanese government.
The magnitude 7.9 quake devastated entire counties, destroying an estimated 4-million homes, rendering roads impassible and leaving as many as 10-million dependent on relief aid.