The Chinese Military’s War on Ebola

Deploying the PLA to help fight Ebola can boost China’s international standing while providing valuable experience.

The Chinese Military’s War on Ebola
Credit: U.S. Army Africa photo by Cmdr. Peter Niles

For the media and public in the West, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is both tightly regimented and mysterious. The PLA holds a strong political stance while its soldiers are highly disciplined. In public displays, they always surprise the audience with their uniform, robotic marching – even their expressions seem to be the same. This kind of impression may start to change as the PLA has become more actively involved in a series of international humanitarian aid plans.

On November 14, 2014, a Chinese military medical team was seen off by their families, with many blessings and tears. Such a touching scene is routine in Western countries when soldiers are deployed for overseas missions, and the Hollywood film makers are probably best equipped to capture this type of sensational moment. However, these PLA soldiers and professionals, young and old, are not going to the battlefield to fight, but to West Africa to help people who are suffering from a deadly infectious disease. Still, when it comes to the difficulty of their mission and the possible danger they will face, fighting against Ebola may actually be comparable to fighting a war.

The PLA’s strong capability for mobilization and its more humane side have been widely reported and applauded by the Chinese media. The PLA has played a major role in a number of humanitarian responses to major disasters in recent years: fighting against the huge flood in 1998; undertaking an unprecedentedly large-scale humanitarian aid and rescue mission after the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake; the surprisingly quick rescue action after the 2010 Yushu Earthquake; and so on. As China becomes more extensively involved in international affairs and more actively takes up its responsibilities as a great power, more PLA soldiers have been dispatched on peaceful missions to areas where rescue and help are needed, such as the Western African countries under attack from the Ebola virus.

Countries in the midst of conflicts and disasters need humanitarian aid from the capable powers, and China can use international humanitarian aid as a perfect platform for solidifying its role as a responsible great power. Besides, overseas humanitarian aid actions carried out by the PLA and other related organizations are huge and complex projects, involving not only China, but also the recipient countries, other participating countries, and various international organizations. This collaborating process is very necessary and helpful for China, which intends to extend its diplomacy peacefully around the globe. China may increase its experience with international rules and practices, and it is obviously very important for China to be more actively involved and recognized in the international community.

The PLA’s participation in this global war against the Ebola virus is a multi-pronged mission, where humanitarian aid and care always come first. When soldiers become more frequently involved in humanitarian aid and rescue actions, it also gives us a change to reflect on the meaning of peace and how it can be constructed in a seemingly more vulnerable world.