According to the World Health Organization’s latest report, Ebola has now claimed 4,920 lives, almost all in west Africa. The number of Ebola cases is at 13,703 and counting – Mali just reported its first case on October 23, making it the eighth country to be affected. As the world scrambles to respond to the epidemic, help is coming from a surprising source: China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
China has been active in the fight against Ebola. Beijing sent four rounds of aid to west Africa, representing a total value of $122 million. “Through the four batches of assistance, China’s message is clear: Ebola is a common public health threat to all countries,” China’s UN ambassador, Liu Jieyi, explained. China’s contributions to Ebola have been well covered; what’s less well-known is that most of these contributions are being handled by the PLA.
As Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun pointed out in a regular monthly press conference, much of China’s aid is delivered by the military. The PLA is “responsible for mobilizing and transporting the Chinese government’s humanitarian aids to relevant western African countries,” Yang said. For example, newly announced plans to construct an Ebola treatment center in Liberia will be realized by the Chinese military. “Relevant work is already underway,” Yang said.
In addition to handling the logistics of Chinese aid, the PLA has also sent doctors, nurses, and other medical experts both to treat patients and to provide technical training in epidemic prevention. These experts “are currently fighting at the frontline of the battle against Ebola,” Yang said.
It’s not unusual for militaries to become the hands and feet of government-sponsored humanitarian missions, whether disease prevention or search-and-rescue after a natural disaster. The U.S. military is similarly playing a leading role in Washington’s efforts to fight Ebola. But it is unusual, and ground-breaking, for China’s military to be playing such a visible role in a global crisis half a world away. It’s perhaps the best example of the PLA on a “new historic mission” since then-President Hu Jintao introduced the term in 2004.
Attention to the fourth of those “new historic missions,” “playing an important role in safeguarding world peace and promoting common development,” has lagged behind the other three, which all center (naturally enough) around protecting China’s unique national interests. But there’s been substantial progress on displaying this “softer side” of China’s military in recent years, particularly in Africa. Beyond contributions to the fight against Ebola, China is also a substantial contributor to UN peacekeeping missions in Africa.
In part, the growing number of humanitarian missions undertaken by Chinese soldiers represents China’s new ability to deploy troops to far-flung regions of the world. This developing capability meshes well with Beijing’s growing desire to be seen as a “responsible power,” albeit on China’s own terms. As China’s capabilities and responsibilities both continue to grow, the PLA’s role in the fight against Ebola may be setting a new precedent for China’s involvement in overseas humanitarian crises.
However, perhaps the most intriguing part of the PLA’s role in the fight against Ebola has nothing to do with boots on the ground or deployment capabilities. There are reports that PLA researchers helped develop an experimental vaccine for Ebola. Spokesperson Yang Yujun said he was “not aware of the specifics” of reports regarding a PLA-developed vaccine and declined to comment further.