China is one of the few countries that has naval forces to spare, thanks to the recent surge in ship construction. The UK had to divert a frigate from its traditional Falklands patrol to add to its own counter-piracy efforts, while even the US Navy, the world’s biggest, suffers ship shortages. In January, an amphibious ship bound for training off the West African coast had to defer its deployment in order to join a US hospital ship and aircraft carrier rushing medical and engineering assistance to earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
Yet for all its deep capacity, the PLAN still doesn’t have the broad range of skills of the US Navy and other, more experienced maritime forces–especially for humanitarian missions. ‘Their military is not very flexible right now,’ Wertheim says. ‘When they watch the kind of stuff the US does in responding to Haiti and other events, [they] really stand in awe…I think China watches us to try to mimic us.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
That mimicry has had a powerful shaping effect on the Chinese navy. In October 2008, the PLAN accepted its first purpose-built hospital ship, code-named ‘Ship 866’ and fitted with ‘comprehensive functions and facilities equivalent to level-three class-A hospitals,’ according to the People’s Daily. Ship 866 joined the Chinese fleet just three months after the acceptance of the first of six large amphibious assault ships, themselves fitted with high-tech surgical bays.
Bob Work, a former naval analyst now serving as undersecretary of the US Navy, said Ship 866 has its roots in an event with parallels to the Haiti disaster: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed as many as 225,000 people in 11 countries.
In the aftermath of that disaster, many countries rushed aid to affected countries by way of amphibious ships and hospital ships, just as they did in Haiti six years later. The US Navy was the biggest naval contributor. China was virtually alone among major powers in having no ships capable of helping out, Work has stated. ‘The tsunami embarrassed them. The Chinese respond to embarrassments in very focused ways.’ In this case by rushing humanitarian-optimized ships into production.
With its new, American-style humanitarian fleet in service, the Chinese now needed expertise in operating it. In April 2009, a Chinese team visited the US hospital ship Comfort while that vessel was delivering medical aid in Colombia. ‘They’re…interested in how we do our business,’ explained Comfort’s captain, James Ware.
‘It’s not necessarily true that an increase in Chinese maritime capability harms the United States,’ Farley says. Indeed, the PLAN’s rise could even benefit not just the United States, but the whole world. But forging an era of naval cooperation will mean the United States and its allies accepting the shared leadership role that Beijing so clearly craves–and granting the PLAN the degree of respect it deserves. That would require changes some might find hard to accept.
For one, the US Navy would have to give up what it perceives as its right to go anywhere, anytime; Davies says this would mean the Americans would probably have to cease collecting intelligence in international waters bordering the Chinese naval base on Hainan Island. Last year, Chinese trawlers harassed a US spy ship operating in the area, resulting in a brief increase in tensions.
But it is also important to note that what didn’t happen in that instance is as important as what did. Even when a US Navy destroyer and a Chinese patrol ship steamed into the disputed zone, no one opened fire. ‘Armed confrontation is possible, but it’s hardly inevitable,’ Farley says. ‘There are identifiable flash points which could start a militarized dispute between the US and the PRC, but it’s easy to envision a future in which none of these points are sparked.’
‘A lot of countries have strong navies and are friendly with the US,’ Davies notes. China could, and should, be one of them.