From October 7 to October 12, the hospital ship of the Chinese navy made its first ever port visit to Australia.
The ship, known as the Peace Ark, made the five-day goodwill visit as the first stop in a broader voyage across the Asia-Pacific code-named “Harmonious Mission 2015”, which China’s defense ministry says focuses on boosting military diplomacy, medical exchange and cultural communication including through the provision of free medical and humanitarian services.
The inaugural visit to Australia began when the ship arrived at the port of Brisbane around 10am on October 7 local time, according to media reports. The visit included a welcome ceremony as well as a range of activities including a visit to the health center of the Royal Australian Air Force, physical examinations for the staff of the Chinese embassy and consulate in Australia and their families and other cultural, medicine and military exchanges.
The port visit to Australia was yet another example of how China has used the Peace Ark to demonstrate its soft power in the region – not just in terms of goodwill visits but also in response to natural disasters, as its late dispatch to the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 illustrated. Indeed, in a speech focused on the new China-Australia free trade pact just last month, Chinese ambassador to Australia Ma Zhaoxu mentioned the Peace Ark’s upcoming visit as one of the several military-to-military engagements between the two countries that helped build “mutual trust.”
Aside from Australia, Harmonious Mission 2015 will also see the Peace Ark visit six other locations around the Pacific Ocean – French Polynesia, the United States, Mexico, Barbados, Grenada and Peru – over the next few weeks. According to China’s defense ministry, the medical crew of the mission comprises 118 medical staff from the Navy General Hospital, No. 411 and No. 411 Hospital of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the PLA Second Military Medical University, and a ship-borne heli-ambulance.
The Peace Ark had departed for Australia from Malaysia’s Port Klang, where it was located after participated in a joint Sino-Malaysian military exercise called Peace and Friendship 2015 which I reported on last month for The Diplomat (See: “China, Malaysia to Hold First Ever Joint Live-Troop Exercise”). This is the fifth iteration of Harmonious Mission, with the first coming in 2010 which saw Peace Ark visit five countries in Asia and Africa. Last year, Peace Ark visited four countries in the South Pacific – Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.