Features | Security | East Asia

How China Mimics US Soft Power

The Chinese decision to build and dispatch a hospital ship is a leaf right out of the US Navy’s soft power playbook.

How China Mimics US Soft Power
Credit: Uniphoto Press

Every day for a week in early September, US Army soldiers travelled the same 10-mile route between Kinshasa’s dilapidated Grand Hotel and the hilltop Congolese military training base overlooking the Democratic Republic of Congo capital. The Americans probably didn’t realize it, but the wide, smooth, freshly-paved avenue they used, so incongruous in a city of potholed and unpaved roads, had recently been constructed by a growing rival—China.

The US soldiers were in Congo to help train up their counterparts in the Forces Armees de la Republique Congolese—the Congolese army. The two-week training exercise, organized by the three-year-old US Africa Command, was meant to extend Washington’s influence in this rare mineral-rich but unstable Central African country. But Chinese road engineers had already been to Kinshasa to do the same on Beijing’s behalf, using somewhat more subtle means.

That China and the United States are in a race to gain sway over countries possessing vital natural resources, not only in Africa but across the developing world, is hardly news. But the scene in Kinshasa—US troops speeding down a Chinese-built road—underscores the differing strategies Washington and Beijing have tended to pursue. While it has fallen on the US military to lead the country’s forays into Congo and other mineral-rich nations, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan, China has traditionally preferred underwriting infrastructure projects. Indeed, Chinese engineers are a fixture in developing country outposts as remote as Chad and Somalia.

Yet while the two powers approach the question of influence from different starting points, they are also increasingly overlapping in the way they develop their soft power—particularly in the use of their navies. Both countries have increasingly embraced hybrid military-humanitarian missions that could become more prominent as the US war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.

Indeed, even as these conflicts raged over the past decade, the US has also been pioneering and developing large-scale soft-power missions, deploying military and civilian medical personnel, engineers and instructors aboard warships and airlifters across Latin America, Africa, the Caucuses, South-east Asia and Oceania. And, after a period of observation and study, China has begun copying the US approach.

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Beijing’s mimicry represents a tacit endorsement of the US efforts, and also coincides with similar initiatives taking shape in other wealthier nations, including Japan and the Netherlands. The United States has made sure to play an important supporting role in Tokyo’s and Amsterdam’s initial, modest soft-power missions, with Washington having long viewed soft power as an ideal venue for international cooperation.

Hospital Ships Ahoy!

The most visible soft power instruments are the high-tech hospital ships belonging to the US Navy and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). In late August, the Chinese ‘Ship 866,’ a recent, reduced-scale copy of 20-year-old US hospital ships Comfort and Mercy, embarked on her first major cruise, sailing the Indian Ocean for three months delivering free medical care and training in Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles and Bangladesh.

Beijing began planning for Ship 866 about five years ago, in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami. The disaster, which wiped out countless seaside communities across 11 countries and claimed more than 200,000 lives, prompted an unprecedented international response. Relief workers, supplies and donations poured in, with the US contribution being led by a flotilla of warships carrying helicopters, doctors and aid. At the heart of the humanitarian fleet sailed an aircraft carrier, an amphibious assault ship and the 900-foot-long Mercy, painted white with a huge red cross on her hull.

Mercy departed the Indian Ocean in April 2005 after four months treating thousands of survivors. A poll taken after found that the percentage of Indonesians holding a favourable view of the United States had more than doubled to nearly 40 percent, owing largely to Mercy‘s visit. The tsunami ushered in an era of US naval operations that (leaving side aircraft carrier-based air strikes on Iraq and Afghanistan) have been almost wholly focused on soft power. Several times a year, US assault ships and hospital ships set sail for remote coastlines, their staterooms full of doctors, engineers and trainers and their cargo holds stacked high with relief supplies and medicine.

Despite possessing, at the time, the world’s third-largest economy, China played no visible role in Indian Ocean tsunami relief and reaped none of the goodwill dividends. ‘The tsunami embarrassed them,’ says US Undersecretary of the Navy Bob Work. ‘The Chinese respond to embarrassments in very focused ways.’ In this case, they built Ship 866, among other soft power-capable vessels.

Ship 866 displaces just 10,000 tons, compared with the 70,000 tons apiece for Mercy and Comfort. But she boasts ‘comprehensive functions and facilities equivalent to level-three class-A hospitals,’ according to the People’s Daily. Painted in a white-and-red colour scheme not unlike that of her US counterparts, Ship 866 launched in early 2009 and began fitting out for operational missions.

But her debut was met with some scepticism by Western observers. Critics pointed out that Ship 866 set sail around the same time as China’s first amphibious assault vessel, the 14,000-ton ‘Type 071.’ The assault ship seemed tailor-made to lead a sea invasion of Taiwan or of disputed portions of the South China Sea. ‘One would enforce a claim to the South China Sea by possessing islands,’ says John Pike, an analyst with the Virginia-based think tank Globalsecurity.org. ‘How does one possess an island? By amphibious assault.’

‘If they were only building a hospital ship, I’d be prepared to start thinking about it on humanitarian-assistance level,’ he adds, ‘but when they build this (Type 071) landing ship dock simultaneously, I tend to think the decision to build them was made at the same meeting, part of a common plan’ for potential island attacks.

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Work agrees that Ship 866 isn’t an ‘either or’ thing. The vessel could be used for both island assaults and soft power, in the same way that most US vessels are also dual use. Interestingly, Type 071’s first deployment was to East African waters to participate in international counter-piracy patrols this year. Ship 866 followed close behind to the same region.

‘The key to this deployment for me is how this represents the first time during the rise of the PLA Navy where we can legitimately claim the PLA Navy is imitating the behavior of the US Navy,’ commented Raymond Pritchett, editor of the influential naval blog Information Dissemination. Indeed, while Beijing’s growing naval prowess could one day be used for an assault on some Pacific real estate, in the meantime it’s clear that it will more likely be used to advance China’s goal of duplicating the soft power-focused US naval operations.

American Advice

The Chinese aren’t the only ones aping US soft power. Last autumn, the Dutch navy deployed its amphibious transport ship Johan de Witt and hundreds of crew to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana and the Cape Verde islands. ‘Together with these countries they will, amongst others, do hydrographic recordings of ports and do exercises,’ its navy reported. ‘The vessel also carries, at the request of several non-governmental organizations, a large quantity of relief goods for the African coastal countries.’

To prepare for the mission, the Dutch first sent officers to sail with Comfort on her 2008 mission to Latin America. The Dutch even adopted the naming conventions of the US Navy. The Americans call their African deployment ‘Africa Partnership Stations.’ Now the Dutch do, too.

And, on the other side of the world, the Japanese have also learned from the Americans in launching their own soft-power cruises. In May this year, the Japanese Self-Defence Force’s amphibious ship Kunisaki set sail with 40 military medical and dental specialists plus representatives of 22 Japanese NGOs to join Mercy for a humanitarian tour of Vietnam and Cambodia. The goal was to deploy so-called Japanese ‘fraternity boars’ to developing countries on a regular basis, eventually without US help.

What’s interesting is that although it is only to be expected that the Netherlands and Japan, as close allies of the United States, would co-operate so closely, China also sought US help before sending Ship 866 to East Africa—in the spring of 2009, the PLAN requested a consultation during Comfort‘s visit to Colombia.

‘They’re putting together a hospital ship, and are interested in how we do our business,’ said US Navy Captain James Ware, Comfort‘s senior doctor, at the time. Ultimately, ten Chinese officers received some training from Ware and his staff in Colombia.

The question of how the United States and China might be able to share the stage as the world’s two leading powers will be among the most pressing of the 21st century. But the two countries’ collaboration over its hospital ships is at least a hint that co-operation is possible. When it comes to China’s growing soft power aspirations, ‘there’s much more reason to be positive’ than worried, argues US naval analyst Eric Wertheim.

Of course, as tensions periodically rise between the two nations—including over maritime claims—the US and China might often find themselves pursuing largely different strategies for exerting global influence. But the recent naval soft power moves suggest that in some spheres at least, there’s room for co-operation as well as competition.