Typhoon Haiyan

After a detour, Chinese help finds its way to the Philippines

Trefor Moss laments the time wasted because politics got in the way

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 5:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 7:49pm

With Sino-Philippine relations at rock bottom, the Chinese government this week decided to dispatch its most powerful navy ship to Philippine waters.

However, this was nothing to do with the two countries' nasty argument about who owns what in the South China Sea. Nor was the ship in question the PLA Navy's new aircraft carrier or a guided-missile destroyer.

This was the hospital ship Peace Ark, which will soon be treating sick and wounded survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan, and to call it the People's Liberation Army's most powerful ship is no exaggeration. While naval analysts disagree about the calibre of China's warships, no one doubts that the Peace Ark is a world-beater - brand new, she is one of only a few purpose-built hospital ships in service anywhere, with room for 300 patients and eight operating theatres.

The ship was commissioned to respond to regional disasters exactly like the one the Philippines has just experienced, and she embodies the win-win ideal that China's leaders aspire to in their foreign-policy efforts: helping people in need while deservedly improving China's international image.

When it comes to boosting Chinese prestige, the Peace Ark has more firepower than any other ship in the PLA fleet.

Even so, Beijing has emerged from this win-win scenario looking less than triumphant. Super Typhoon Haiyan struck on November 8. It took 12 days for the Chinese foreign ministry to confirm that the Peace Ark would be sent to assist, meaning she is unlikely to be treating typhoon victims until two to three weeks after the disaster. For the injured, that's a long time to hold on.

The Chinese government made the right decision, but spent too long fumbling its way towards it. The third plenum, an important Communist Party gathering held in Beijing last week, may have been a distraction; but China's leaders were mainly influenced by their open contempt for Philippine President Benigno Aquino and his government, which has a track record of doing things Beijing doesn't like.

Now the men who run the Philippines may be worthy of China's contempt; who's to say? But the sick and the starving of Tanauan or Tacloban - people who cared nothing for their country's territorial disputes even before their homes were washed away - most definitely are not.

The political impulse to punish the Philippines for its resistance to Beijing's territorial claims did eventually give way to the humane impulse to help people in extreme difficulty, but the shift was slow and unedifying. First, China offered US$100,000 in aid; rightfully embarrassed, it upped this to US$1.6 million; and only when that, too, seemed woefully inadequate was the Peace Ark placed at Manila's disposal.

The Peace Ark still can, and will, make a huge difference. Sick and injured people will require treatment for months to come, and despite the delays the Peace Ark is still likely to be on the scene before the first American hospital ship, USNS Mercy, which is still in San Diego and won't reach the Philippines until December.

But the difference is that the US - and others - responded immediately with the assets they had in the region at the time. Around
50 American ships plus aircraft are helping out.

So when the medics of the Peace Ark finally get to work, the relief and gratitude of Filipinos will be tinged with a sense of disappointment that precious days were lost while political pride trumped humanitarian common sense.

The Peace Ark was built as a symbol of China's arrival as a great power. But, this week, she has been more a symbol of China's future potential - and of her leaders' present flaws.

Trefor Moss is an independent journalist based in Hong Kong and a former Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. He can be followed on Twitter @Trefor1