- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2009

BEIJING

China’s military has a new weapon in the country’s soft-power arsenal that copies a technique long used by the United States - a 10,000-ton hospital ship to be deployed for humanitarian purposes in Asia and beyond.

The vessel, dubbed Ship 866, is meant to soften China’s image overseas and allay concerns among its neighbors over its navy´s growing strength, while at the same time adding to its military capabilities, analysts say.

The ship’s arrival coincides with clear signs that the Chinese military is tentatively moving away from its policy of maintaining a low international profile to avoid provoking those who doubt its commitment to a “peaceful rise” doctrine.

Chinese warships last month began patrolling the pirate-plagued waters in the Gulf of Aden - the first time they have ventured out of the Pacific on a combat mission since the 15th century. A top Chinese defense military official said recently that China is seriously considering adding its first aircraft carrier to its naval fleet.

Ship 866 makes “the country one of the few in the world that has medical care and emergency rescue capabilities on the high seas while also raising the capability of the Chinese navy to accomplish diversified military missions,” the Communist Party newspaper People´s Daily said recently.

Specialized hospital ships have military purposes - to treat battlefield casualties and provide support to amphibious assault ships - but are used most often for humanitarian and disaster relief missions, said Robert Work, a naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

“A hospital ship becomes an extremely important symbol of a country´s soft power,” he said. “Even if it does have a military mission, 99 percent of its service life is probably going to be spent on soft-power missions.”

The United States has two dedicated hospital ships, each equipped with 1,000 hospital beds: the USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy.

The Mercy completed a four-month humanitarian deployment in the Western Pacific last year, treating patients in Vietnam and the Philippines. The United States also deployed its assault ship USS Kearsarge, which possesses extensive medical facilities, on a four-month aid tour of Latin America toward the end of last year.

“The Americans have gained a lot of good will from utilizing their assets. I think the Chinese have picked up on that,” said Jason Alderwick, a maritime defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

“Polling data showed that in all countries surveyed, the majority of people viewed the missions favorably,” said Vice Adm. Adam M. Robinson Jr., the surgeon general of the U.S. Navy. “Moreover, this favorability translated into a significant increase in favorability toward the United States.”

The Asian tsunami in 2004 was a major wake-up call for the Chinese leadership about how the use of military assets in disaster-relief operations can benefit a nation´s image.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had little direct involvement in emergency response efforts, hindering China´s efforts to establish itself as the leading player in Asia.

“When compared to the level of maritime assistance and response provided by the U.S., all other contributions, including the Chinese efforts, paled into insignificance,” Mr. Alderwick said. “Ship 866 is a perfect asset to use in that kind of situation should it ever arise again.”

The exact military motivations that lie behind the ship´s construction are not clear. Mr. Work said he thinks it was built in case of a conflict with Taiwan, where it could be used in conjunction with the Chinese navy’s new Type 071 amphibious warfare ship to provide rapid medical assistance to injured troops.

But, as cross-strait ties strengthen, John Pike, director of the Virginia-based GlobalSecurity.org, is looking further afield to decipher Chinese intentions.

He said that both hospital Ship 866 and the Type 071 assault ship have been developed to assert China´s dominance in the South China Sea, where unexploited oil and gas reserves are subject to competing territorial claims.

“If I saw one of these ships in isolation, I would think that´s interesting. When I see both of them together, well, that´s when Mr. Spock says, ‘Fascinating.’ To see them at the same time could not be coincidental,” Mr. Pike said.

“What is the next big problem the PLA navy could solve for the political leadership? The South China Sea. It has an incredible capability to grab everything down there. If I was in the PLA navy, that´s a no-brainer,” he said.

As for Ship 866´s future soft-power missions, analysts agree that it could be years before it is deployed as far as Africa, a move that could go a long way to negating criticism from some quarters over China´s mercantile approach to the continent.

In the near term, the ship is more likely to stay in East Asia, provide support to some of China´s more isolated outposts and be available to respond to natural disasters that may hit the region.

Its effectiveness as a soft-power instrument ultimately will depend largely on how China plays it, said Drew Thompson, director of China Studies at the Nixon Center in Washington.

“Chinese soft power has really been found lacking,” he said. “Will deploying a hospital ship offset some of the PR disasters that have happened in the last year? Are they going to somehow manage their media better on this? Are they going to design something more compelling? Or is it going to come off as another very schmaltzy propaganda effort?” he said.

“If their objective is to create some good images to sell to their domestic audience in order to boost the party’s legitimacy among the people, then that´s effective. But that´s not really soft-power projection. What their objective is, is still a wide-open question,” he said.

Mr. Thompson suggested that for soft-power missions to have a real impact, China, as well as the United States, needs to think more long term.

“The biggest problem is negative blow-back. People are left a little more disappointed if the hospital ship has no permanent impact. You can do more harm than good if you are not really investing.

“That´s something the military is trying to think through in the U.S.,” he said. “Rather than having a boat just pull up, you really need permanent clinics in place.”

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