China’s medical diplomacy and the Philippines
29 Nov 2013|

China's Peace Ark hospital ship

China has been strongly criticised for its sudden announcement of an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. This comes just after the withering international criticism it faced for its early response to the Philippines’ disaster. The death toll from Typhoon Haiyan stands at over 5,000.

At first, China left its wallet at home: its initial offer of aid to the battered country was a stingy $100,000, but it’s now pledged a modest $1.6 million worth of relief materials. That still looks mean, with more than $10 million from Australia, $20 million from the US (which has sent an aircraft carrier and marines), $17 million from the European Union, $16 million from the UK, and $10 million from Japan, (with three ships and 1,000 personnel). New Zealand coughed up $1.7 million.

It’s not as if China hasn’t contributed to disaster response in the region before. Between 2002 and 2010, the PLA carried out 28 international humanitarian aid missions. That’s comparable to the Australian Defence Force, which undertook 16 such operations between 2003 and 2011. Chinese personnel numbers in these missions over the last decade are roughly similar to our own military deployments (PDF).

This time China’s aloof stance seemed linked to the fact the Philippines have refused to bow to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, and have challenged its maritime claims before the UN’s International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

Now China has decided to try to repair some of the damage to its international image. Last Monday, the Chinese Navy’s hospital ship, the Peace Ark, started to give medical aid to patients in typhoon-hit areas in central Philippines. The Peace Ark will set up a field hospital in the disaster area to receive patients and transfer them to the ship for further treatment. This is the first time PeaceArk has taken part in any international disaster relief missions. (After the Japan earthquake disaster of March 2011 China offered to send the Peace Ark, but the offer wasn’t taken up.)

The hospital ship has 300 beds, 20 ICUs and eight operating theatres, and can accommodate 40 major procedures a day. The Chinese claim that the Peace Ark can provide seagoing medical services equivalent to those of a top hospital in Beijing. Among the world’s hospital ships, only US Navy’s Mercy and Comfort are larger (PDF).

There’s no doubt that the Peace Ark hospital ship could do a lot of good. The Chinese Embassy in the Philippines has indicated that the Peace Ark, will do its ‘utmost’ to offer medical services to local victims.

It’ll be interesting to see if China’s medical diplomacy mission provides an opportunity for multinational cooperation with other donor states, and if it results in any relationship building between China and the Philippines.

Anthony Bergin is the deputy director of ASPI and co-author of More than Good Deeds: Disaster Risk Management and Australian, Japanese and US Defence Forces. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.