28/04/2015 3:57 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Nepal Earthquake: China, India Turn On Aid Diplomacy

Nepalese soldiers load a helicopter with emergency supplies at a landing zone in the town of Gorkha, Nepal, Tuesday, April 28, 2015. Helicopters crisscrossed the skies above the high mountains of Gorkha district on Tuesday near the epicenter of the weekend earthquake, ferrying the injured to clinics, and taking emergency supplies back to remote villages devastated by the disaster. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

At a 12-bed hospital deep in Nepal's Himalayan mountains, Indian Air Force helicopters bring in the casualties of a devastating earthquake that has killed more than 4,000: injured men, women and children plucked from hilltops and inaccessible valleys.

In the capital Kathmandu, Chinese rescuers in red uniforms have been searching for survivors in the rubble. Television footage on Tuesday showed one crew pulling a man from the wreckage of a hotel, carrying him gingerly on a stretcher.

Nepal's government has struggled in the wake of the country's worst earthquake in nearly a century, its officials have been largely absent from public view. Not so India and China: both promised rescuers, sniffer dogs, tents and food within hours, winning praise from stranded Nepalis.

"We have no faith in our government, only India and (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi are helping us," said villager Dhruba Kandel in Dhading. "If it were not for these helicopters, people would be dying on the mountains by the dozens."

Nepal is sandwiched between India and China and the two Asian giants have used aid and investment to court Kathmandu for years.

China rushed to offer sympathy and assistance on Saturday, and has since said it will provide $3.3 million in aid - the same as the entire European Union.

The ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily noted ordinary Chinese have held fund-raising drives for Nepal, and reported a Chinese noodle shop owner in Kathmandu has been making rice porridge and giving it to people for free.

Modi, whose own country was also hit by the earthquake, was on air within hours of the disaster, and has since promised to "wipe the tears of every Nepali". Indian television has devoted hours of footage to Indian planes, trucks and buses delivering aid.

"India and China are sending specialised relief personnel, and they are working very hard," Nepal's Foreign Minister Mahendra Bahadur Pandey, said in an interview with the Indian Express newspaper on Tuesday, balancing his praise.

He said Nepal had divided areas between China and India as they brought aid, but gave no details.

Officials brushed aside talk of a proxy aid war. China's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that it was willing to "pro-actively coordinate with India on earthquake aid".

Zhang Chunxiang, a former Chinese ambassador to Pakistan who was envoy during the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, said there was "no competition".

"When our friendly neighbours experience such a large earthquake, the Chinese government and people should offer support and react immediately," he told reporters in Beijing.

But both sides, jostling for pre-eminence in the region, are aware of potential pitfalls and diplomatic dividends.

Modi's political career was built on the rebuilding of his home state of Gujarat after a 2001 earthquake there, and he has won praise for the smooth management of operations like the mass evacuation of more than 4,700 Indians and almost 1,950 other foreigners from Yemen last month.

China has learned the hard way, with a slow and stingy response to the 2013 Philippines' typhoon - giving less help than Swedish flatpack furniture company Ikea - that contrasted heavily with the United States and others, and cost it political goodwill in the region.

"A friend in need is a friend indeed," said Mahesh Kumar Maskey, Nepal's ambassador to China, in comments carried by Xinhua news agency.