NEW YORK – On a Chinese hospital ship off Hawaii, crew members demonstrate traditional massage techniques to U.S. sailors. The mood is one of collegiality, even after China opted out of Japan-led humanitarian drills at the world’s largest international naval exercise.
There are no guns in sight as Senior Capt. Sun Tao stands on the deck of the Peace Ark, which is taking part in the five- week-long Rim of the Pacific Exercise, known as RIMPAC. Inside the ship, sailors tuck into fatty pork and steamed buns, watching President Xi Jinping on state television, while others give out Chinese massages.
“The Chinese navy now is acting on orders to have a cooperative and open attitude,” Sun said after Chinese navy cameramen filmed reporters visiting its eight operating theaters, dental facilities and CT scanner. “I think cooperative areas are growing wider.”
The Peace Ark, at about 580 feet, is the friendly face of China’s expanding military power in the Pacific, helping treat thousands after Typhoon Haiyan devastated parts of the Philippines in November 2013. In another bid to soften its public image, the army turned to dancing robots, served up Big Macs and showed that amphibious vehicles can indeed do donuts at its latest open day in Beijing on July 22.
Even so, China’s decision to avoid the Japan-led RIMPAC disaster-relief drills reflects remaining tensions with its neighbors over territory as Xi pledges to restore China to naval prominence in the region. China fanned concerns about its intentions by sending a surveillance vessel to waters off Hawaii even as it participated in the 22-nation RIMPAC exercise for the first time, sending the second-largest fleet.
“China’s participation is motived by fame, friendship and fear,” said Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “The hospital ship shows China wants to present the benign image that its naval modernization is actually beneficial to the region. The spy ship shows there is still a trust deficit between the two sides.”
RIMPAC offers China and the U.S. a nonconfrontational way to learn more about each other’s capabilities compared with more tense encounters, including a near-collision with a U.S. cruiser in December. While China’s four People’s Liberation Army Navy ships have been welcomed they’ve been kept out of core war games, and the exercise is led by the U.S. along with allies Australia, Canada and Japan. China and Japan are sparring over uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, over which China declared an air defense identification zone last November.
Commissioned in 2008, the Peace Ark has visited 16 countries and provided medical services to Chinese navy escort fleets in the Gulf of Aden. On its way back from Hawaii, the ship will stop in Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, Sun said.
“The Peace Ark is one of the most notable it’s sent to RIMPAC, because the Peace Ark was deployed in the past to build China’s image of its growing military might for peace and humanitarian purposes,” said Jian Zhang, a senior lecturer at the Canberra-based Australian Defence Force Academy of the University of New South Wales. “It wants to show it can play a positive and constructive role in international security cooperation.”
Even so, while China initially indicated interest in participating in some of the “scenario-driven” humanitarian events, it limited the scope of its participation to military medicine exchanges and training, Lt. Lenaya Rotklein, a public affairs officer for Rimpac, said by email. The Peace Ark did take part in a medical orientation and military medicine symposium with more than 120 international medical officials.
“While at sea, Peace Ark and USNS Mercy participated in mass casualty events and medical evacuation training,” she said.
The Peace Ark has worked closely with U.S. hospital ship USNS Mercy and even requested the U.S. ship attend the exercise for the first time, Capt. Paul Spedero of the amphibious assault vessel USS Peleliu, which is at RIMPAC alongside the Mercy, said in an interview on the bridge of his ship. The U.S. is restricted by law on the types of contacts it can have with the Chinese, Spedero said.
“They’ve been pursuing this capability for some time, they’re very interested in our capability with the Mercy in the Pacific,” he said. “They are very serious about the development of that capability.”
When Haiyan hit the Philippines, the U.S. sent the Japan-based aircraft carrier USS George Washington as well as two amphibious ships carrying around 900 marines from Okinawa.
China sent the Peace Ark, which ferried the sick and injured from shore using its sole helicopter. The visit was the first time the navy engaged in overseas humanitarian medical aid, according to the Ministry of Defense.
“I felt that the people of the Philippines — ordinary people, government officials, or the military — welcomed our services,” Sun said about his experience there. “Through this medical service, they can deepen their understanding of the Chinese navy and its thinking.”
While it will focus on humanitarian work, the ship’s triage area can handle wartime casualties, according to Du Xin, a lieutenant commander on the ship.
China and the Philippines are embroiled in a territorial dispute over resource-rich shoals in the South China Sea. The Philippines has accused China of building artificial islands in the area and harassing its coast guard and fishing boats.
As it presses its territorial claims, China is building longer-range naval and air capacity. Its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was commissioned in 2012 and has conducted sea trials. The country is holding military exercises in the South China Sea until Aug. 1 and a drill in the East China Sea until Aug. 2.
“In between the extremes of humanitarian uses for its navy and cold-war style espionage, may be found capacities that show China is no laggard in what Chinese President and commander-in- chief, Xi Jinping requires of the country’s armed forces — the ability to fight and win wars,” Rosita Dellios, an associate professor of international relations at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast, said in an email.
For now, China is stressing the humanitarian work of its navy. On board the Peace Ark, Commander Fu Bensheng received a traditional cupping massage in the Traditional Chinese Medicine ward. The ship carries a slogan from Chairman Mao Zedong that “being humble helps you become a good person, and being arrogant does the opposite.”
“The Chinese navy will take part in more rescues,” Sun said, sipping green tea in the ship’s cafe. “Whenever there is a disaster, countries’ rescue ability is limited. You need many countries to help them. China will positively take part in international humanitarian rescues.”