24 September 2011

Red Crosses, Blue Water: Hospital Ships and China’s Expanding Naval Presence

Peter W. Mackenzie, Red Crosses, Blue Water: Hospital Ships and China’s Expanding Naval Presence, CNA China Studies, 15 September 2011.

On the morning of October 13, 2010, a gleaming white ship emblazoned with red crosses sailed into Mombasa, Kenya’s largest and busiest seaport. As the 25,760-ton Chinese hospital ship “Peace Ark” neared shore, the ship’s crew appeared on deck, standing at attention in their dress whites as a Chinese navy band played. Along the waterfront, an enthusiastic crowd of hundreds of Kenyans and Chinese expatriates burst into cheers and waved the flags of both countries. Many Kenyans had rushed to the port upon hearing that the Chinese ship would provide free medical care. In the days that followed, according to one of the ship’s doctors, about 1,000 of them would queue overnight for the chance to be treated.

Chinese ambassador Liu Guangyuan declared the visit a long-overdue act of reciprocity: In the 15th century, the King of Malindi (120 kilometers up the Swahili coast from Mombasa) had presented a giraffe to legendary Chinese admiral Zheng He during his historic voyage to East Africa and the Middle East. “My wish,” Liu wrote in an op-ed in Kenya’s Daily Nation, “is that the Peace Ark becomes a window into the heart of China for Kenyans. The visit is, no doubt, a statement of the true friendship the Chinese people share with the people of Kenya.”

Kenya was one of four African countries that the ship visited in the course of Harmonious Mission 2010, the largest single exercise of naval medical diplomacy in the history of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In Kenya alone, the ship’s crew treated nearly 2,700 patients over the course of five days, and performed 16 major operations. They also provided training for Kenyan health care providers and donated supplies to local hospitals. The visit was very well received; in a page of letters about the “Peace Ark” to the Nairobi-based Standard, the only complaint registered was that the medications dispensed by ship doctors were labeled only in Chinese, not English. At the time of its African voyage, the “Peace Ark” had been in service with the PLA Navy (PLAN) for about two years, but its deployment was the culmination of more than three decades of evolution in China’s naval medical logistics. This process began in a different China, one for which global maritime power was not yet a major consideration.

This paper traces the development of China’s hospital ships since the 1970s, culminating with the missions of China’s premier hospital ship, the “Peace Ark.” (See appendix A for a comparison of these ships.) It then explores the ways in which Chinese hospital ships are being

used, and how they might be deployed in the future. Finally, it addresses the implications of China’s use of hospital ships for the country’s expanding maritime hard and soft power. In order to complete these tasks, the study draws heavily on Chinese open-source media, including military affairs journals and newspapers. …

For the significance of Peace Ark’s (and the PLA Navy’s) first mission to the Caribbean, currently underway, see “PLAN Hospital Ship ‘Peace Ark’ (‘和平方舟’号医院船) Embarks on 3-Month Navy Medical Service Mission in Caribbean.”

For background on Peace Ark and its first mission overseas, see “Chinese Hospital Ship ‘Peace Ark’ Sets Sail for Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, Africa to Provide Medical Assistance, Exchange.”

For the first public report that Peace Ark would be deployed to the Middle East and Africa in 2010, see Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “Oversea Trumps Overland: China’s Oil Supply Future is Maritime,” China Signpost 洞察中国™, No. 1 (26 May 2010).

For more details on Beijing’s dispatching of the frigate Xuzhou to escort ships transporting Chinese citizens from Libya, see:

Gabe Collins and Andrew S. Erickson, “Implications of China’s Military Evacuation of Citizens from Libya,” Jamestown China Brief, 11.4 (10 March 2011): 8-10.

Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “Missile Frigate Xuzhou Transits Suez Canal, to Arrive off Libya ~Wednesday 2 March: China’s first operational deployment to Mediterranean addresses Libya’s evolving security situation,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 26 (27 February 2011).

Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “China Dispatches Warship to Protect Libya Evacuation Mission: Marks the PRC’s first use of frontline military assets to protect an evacuation mission,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 25 (24 February 2011).

For analysis of China’s ongoing counter-piracy deployment in the Gulf of Aden, see Andrew S. Erickson, “Chinese Sea Power in Action: the Counter-Piracy Mission in the Gulf of Aden and Beyond,” in Roy Kamphausen, David Lai, and Andrew Scobell, eds., The PLA at Home and Abroad: Assessing the Operational Capabilities of China’s Military (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College and National Bureau of Asian Research, July 2010), 295-376.

For analysis and policy recommendations from American and Chinese experts concerning potential areas for Sino-American martime cooperation, see Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and Nan Li, eds., China, the United States, and 21st Century Sea Power: Defining a Maritime Security Partnership (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010).