The donation on Friday appeared to be a clear sign that the world's most populous nation is becoming an increasingly important player on the world stage.

Having announced a $2.6 million aid package on Tuesday, 48 hours after the disaster, China said it had significantly upgraded its contribution after the death toll from the disaster rose towards the 125,000 mark and the full extent of the destruction became known, Xinhua news agency said.

It was one of the biggest one-off aid packages ever granted by the world's largest developing nation and officials indicated that China's ability to provide aid has significantly risen as its economy has grown substantially.

Planned impact

"The action is very encouraging and shows China's commitment to the region and the world," Roy Wadia, spokesman for the World Health Organisation in Beijing, said.

China and the US upgraded their
donations after early criticism

One western diplomat said the lucrative aid package was designed to have a carefully planned political impact.

"It is the first time that such a large contribution has been made and been publicised. China wants to show that it is concerned with the wellbeing and the safety of the region," the diplomat, who declined to be named, said.

Another major Asian power, Japan, has pledged $40 million in aid to the victims of the disaster.

Both China and Japan have largely avoided casualties from the earthquake-triggered killer waves which devastated parts of their Asian neighbours.

The Chinese contribution is a significant boost to the worldwide effort to raise funds for the catastrophe.

Annan's plea

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced late on Thursday, before the Chinese contribution was known, that more than half a billion dollars had been pledged, including $250 million from the World Bank and more than 30 states.

For many of the stricken nations,
rebuilding will be an uphill task

Annan called on world nations to make a long-term commitment to rebuilding lives and communities shattered by the disaster.

"It is so huge that no one agency or one country can deal with it alone," Annan said.

Australia's government committed an extra $19.4 million to tsunami aid relief on Friday.

And that contribution is well on its way to being matched by donations from the British public, which has donated $62 million for victims of the tsunami.

Around $13.5 million was donated overnight on Thursday alone, with call centres taking 900,000 calls an hour, according to the Disasters Emergency Committee, an umbrella organisation for British charities.

Matching contributions

In the United States, Secretary of State Colin Powell reacted angrily to suggestions that wealthy nations had been "stingy" in giving aid to poorer nations, saying Washington was "not second to anyone" in its response to disasters.

The Bush administration announced late on Friday that it had increased its aid package to $350 million.

Meanwhile, the US public and companies are collecting tens of millions of dollars.

The Pfizer pharmaceutical group donated $35 million of cash and drugs - the same amount initially pledged by Washington - while the American Red Cross said on Thursday it had received $18 million from the public.

Donors are being asked to look
beyond the immediate aid need

In Germany, which still has more than 1000 nationals missing as a result of the disaster, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder called for wealthy nations to look beyond the immediate emergency aid effort.

Schroder promised to fight for a debt reduction for the Indian Ocean countries affected and called for rich countries to form partnerships with countries hit by the disaster.

"I want there to be lasting aid for the region. I want us to feel a responsibility over a long period," he said in his New Year's Eve address.

Debt relief talk

The idea of debt relief appears to be gathering pace.

"The action is very encouraging and shows China's commitment to the region and the world"

Roy Wadia,
spokesman,
WHO Beijing office

French President Jacques Chirac has said his government will push for a Paris Club moratorium of debt for some of the devastated countries and Canada on Thursday put in place with immediate effect a debt moratorium for nations hit by the catastrophe.

And in Washington, Powell used an interview with news agency AFP to back the idea of a debt moratorium for stricken nations, saying: "I think debt relief is something, clearly, the international community should look towards."

Meanwhile in many European countries, New Year's Eve partygoers were being encouraged to make donations through text messages from their mobile phones.