China’s Hospital Ship Helps Out in The Philippines—America’s Stays Home
Beijing scores major PR points
The Chinese navy’s giant hospital ship Peace Ark has begun search-and-rescue operations in The Philippines, some three weeks after one of history’s biggest recorded typhoons smashed into the archipelago nation and killed thousands of people.
Meanwhile America’s own Pacific Ocean hospital ship, the much larger Mercy, remains in port in California—Washington having determined that, nearly a month after the storm, Manila no longer needs the vessel’s expansive, cutting-edge facilities. “The medical situation in The Philippines has dramatically improved over the last two weeks,” said Cmdr. Steve Curry, a Navy spokesman.
But for America, sidelining Mercy is a potentially self-defeating move: penny wise but pound foolish. Governments respond to foreign natural disasters mostly to win friends and influence people. In the geopolitics of disaster relief, appearances matter. And by sending Peace Ark to The Philippines while Mercy stay home, Beijing could win the post-storm humanitarian PR contest.
For China, it’s a badly needed victory. Squabbling with its neighbors over distant, resource-rich islands and unilaterally claiming ownership of international airspace near Japan, the Chinese Communist Party lately has looked like a real bully. Peace Ark could help change that.
To be clear, Mercy’s stand-down doesn’t mean America isn’t helping out in The Philippines. Quite the contrary: U.S. Marines, Navy ships and Air Force planes surged into the storm-ravaged country within hours of the winds subsiding. Today some of the Pentagon’s newest and most sophisticated hardware is still working hard to transport people and supplies around the disaster zone, including pricey V-22 tiltrotor aircraft and the speedy USS Freedom Littoral Combat Ship.
But hospital ships are uniquely visible and therefore more powerfully symbolic—that’s the whole reason the Pentagon keeps one on each U.S. coast and frequently deploys them to Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Painted white and emblazoned with giant red crosses, they more than any other ship or plane represent a country’s determination to help out after a disaster.
America was first to The Philippines after the storm, but with Peace Ark now looming off the damaged coast, alone among hospital ships, Beijing may ultimately come out ahead in the hearts and minds of Filipinos.
Peace Ark entered service in late 2008 as the Chinese fleet’s first, and so far only, modern medical ship. With 300 beds, 20 intensive care units and eight surgical bays plus hundreds of medical staff, she is roughly equivalent to a large and thoroughly advanced land-based hospital.
The U.S. Navy’s 1980s-vintage Mercy and her East Coast sister ship Comfort are far larger than Peace Ark, each American ship boasting 1,000 beds, 80 intensive care units and a dozen operating rooms.
However small in comparison, Peace Ark signaled Beijing's determination to compete with Washington in the field of humanitarian “soft power.”
Bob Work, a former Navy under secretary now heading the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C., told War is Boring that Peace Ark has its roots in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed as many as 225,000 people in 11 countries.
In the aftermath of that disaster, many governments rushed in aid by way of amphibious ships and, in America’s case, Mercy. China was virtually alone among major powers in having no vessels really capable of helping out. “The tsunami embarrassed them,” Work said. “The Chinese respond to embarrassments in very focused ways.” In this case by putting new ships into production, including Peace Ark.
Nine years later that impulse has finally borne fruit, with a modern Chinese hospital ship anchored off the Philippine coast, receiving patients via helicopter, dramatically helping out even though her lavish facilities aren’t necessarily fully needed.
All while her American predecessor and competitor stays home.