China's 'Peace Ark':

The Navy and Band-Aid Diplomacy

09 Jul, 2013    ·   4026

Kamlesh Agnihotri deconstructs the strategic agenda behind the mission of the hospital ship

An article titled “Peace Ark: From China with Love and Care”,  in the English version of the popular ‘People’s Daily’ online on June 19, 2013 conveys a lot in addition to the benign and compassionate tone and tenor overtly articulated therein. This article reported the commencement of third voyage of Chinese Navy’s hospital ship ‘Peace Ark’ from Zhoushan port on June 10, 2013 for the ‘Peace Mission 2013’. The four month long voyage includes a visit to eight countries and also a short stint in the Gulf of Aden, probably for jointly operating with and providing medical support to the 14th PLA Navy anti-piracy task Force. The onward leg starting with Brunei was followed by a six days stop-over at Male from June 29, 2013. The return voyage would see the ship touch the ports of Karachi in Pakistan, Mumbai in India, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Thilwa in Myanmar, Labuan Bajo and Jakarta in Indonesia and Sihanoukville in Cambodia.

The above article was high on emotional quotient and described the medical interventions by the ship’s doctors during the previous two voyages in quite melodramatic details. Acknowledging that these voyages in 2010 and 2011 were instrumental in propagating the Chinese idea of ‘Peaceful Development’, the ship has embarked upon the current voyage with a specific focus on Asian countries. The ship commenced its mission by participating in the first ever joint Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief and Military Medicine Exercise, organised by the ‘ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus’ Mechanism in Brunei from June 17 to 20, 2013. It also provided free medical services to the public, including diagnostics, OPD services, specialists’ consultation, minor surgeries and medicine distribution.

The ship continued to provide medical services in Maldives too, dispatching ten mobile medical sub-teams to eight far-flung islands of Maldives by its ship-borne helicopter, local aircraft and boats. A measured look at the Peace Ark’s future ports of call indicates the potential for China to build its image as a benign Asian benefactor through ‘Band-Aid’ diplomacy.  The word ‘Band-Aid’ is metaphorically used to indicate the provision of highly visible but only preliminary management of a minor injury, possibly not serious enough to require further follow up or attention. In fact, the limited time of the ship’s stay at any given port vis-à-vis the enormity of task, would enable it to achieve just that much. However, given the inadequacy of organised State medical cover to the deprived milieu in most cases where the ship is scheduled to visit, whatever medical support that comes along, is more than welcome.

Digressing a little from the argument, the success of a working model is measured in terms of four elements of ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘whither’ (purpose) and ‘when’, in common naval parlance. Applying these yardsticks to the current context, China appears to have rightly surmised the ‘what’, ‘whither’ (purpose) and ‘where’ components of ‘military operations other than war’ (MOOTW) model for its Navy. If the current medical mission of the ‘Peace Ark’ can be equated with the model’s ‘what’ component; and ‘whither’ representing the ‘soft-power projection intent; then its focus on Asia as the ‘where’ component may be the most appropriate choice. China had got early indications of this model’s potential effectiveness during the hospital ship’s Afro-Asian mission in 2010, where it treated a total of 12,353 outpatients, 57 in-patients and conducted 95 surgical procedures, particularly receiving overwhelming response from the people of Chittagong. The occasion for testing the ‘when’ component of this model for China may present itself sooner rather than later, given the susceptibility of this region being wreaked by maritime disasters at regular intervals.

Some Chinese analysts have linked the current voyage of the ‘Peace Ark’ with the assertion that "as the world's second-largest economy, China has the responsibility and the capability to provide humanitarian services to people across the world." Such assertion seems to derive strength from the Chinese ruling elite’s new found confidence in taking leadership roles in global affairs. This was demonstrably clear by the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s reported statement when meeting the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon on June 19, 2013, that “as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has heavy responsibilities to assume and has the capability to assume them.” 

Thus, notwithstanding the time limitation for the hospital ship during port calls , provision of medical support to the needy will only generate significant goodwill – an outcome that  umpteen rhetorical statements in White Papers and other documents would never be able to achieve. The Chinese discourse also stresses that the US also uses a similar philosophy for furthering its politico-diplomatic ends.

If that be the most obvious inference, then it possibly makes a strong case for all the large sized and modernising navies to possess an equivalent capability in their fleets.