China is sending a military-run hospital ship to the Pacific to where it will call in at Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and East Timor at a time of growing competition with the United States and its allies for influence in the region.

The 14,300 metric ton “Peace Ark”, which is bigger than a typical Chinese destroyer, will offer medical aid to Chinese citizens and residents of the countries it visits on its ninth humanitarian “Harmony Mission”, the defence ministry said in a statement.

“It is to present our image as a responsible big country”, Navy spokesperson Liu Wensheng said in a statement. The ship, painted white with red crosses on its sides, was commissioned in 2008 and has sailed to more than 40 countries.

China has been building ties in the Pacific in recent years to the consternation of the United States and allies Australia and New Zealand, that have long seen the region as their sphere of influence. China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands last year and hopes to build similar ties with other Pacific countries. Its foreign minister has said relations with the Solomon Islands can serve as a model.

The United States has pledged to triple funding for the region and it opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands in February after a 30-year absence. It is also planning an embassy in Vanuatu. In May, the U.S opened an embassy in Tonga and signed a defence pact with Papua New Guinea.