International Disaster Relief and Humanitarian Assistance: A Future Role for the PLA?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 11

Since 2004, Asian natural disasters have become an opportunity for regional militaries to deploy in a disaster relief role, demonstrating their value as more than a deterrent to war or transnational threats. By employing their instruments of hard power to deliver aid to the victims of natural disasters, the United States, India, and even Japan have softened regional perceptions of their might by making humanitarian assistance a central role for their military forces in the region. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has carefully observed the international response to recent disasters, their positive effect on public opinion and the resulting evolution of military thought. Well versed in responding to domestic disasters, such as annual floods and the recent earthquake in Sichuan Province, the PLA is carefully and cautiously assessing the future potential for international disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions [1].

Cyclone Nargis struck Burma’s largest city, Yangon, and the surrounding Irrawaddy Delta on May 2 and 3, bringing high winds and a storm surge that resulted in an immediate estimate of 22,500 dead, tens of thousands missing and one million without food, shelter and water. Over the following days, the extent of the devastation was increasingly revealed, prompting the otherwise xenophobic military government of the isolated country to issue reluctant appeals to the international community for assistance. The pariah state, however, has been slow to allow international aid agencies and governments to send experts to assess the damage and coordinate on the ground delivery of aid, making it unlikely that regional militaries will play a significant role in delivering aid directly to affected people, and compounded the humanitarian disaster with the death poll possibly exceeding 200,000 (Sydney Morning Herald, May 21).

While Thailand and the United States have delivered aid to Yangon by military aircraft, their militaries have not been able to deploy ships or helicopters that could deliver aid directly to affected areas. The Indian military anticipated the cyclone, pre-positioning ships in the nearby Andaman Islands, including a destroyer and a corvette that arrived with supplies in Yangon soon after the storm passed. These Indian warships, however, were not able to repeat the impressive demonstration of capabilities displayed by the amphibious assault ships, helicopters and hovercraft of several countries that deployed during the 2004 tsunami. The Chinese military was largely an observer to the tsunami response, choosing not to deploy abroad, delivering donated supplies by civilian charter aircraft and sending only a handful of military and civilian personnel to aid in relief efforts.

China Will Not Take the Lead in Burma Disaster

Thus far, China has pledged $1 million worth of aid, including relief materials worth $500,000 to Burma. In contrast to the Indian Navy, the PLA did not react rapidly to this natural disaster, despite apparent aspirations to play a greater role in the region politically, economically and militarily. Sensitive to the political whims of the ruling junta, it is likely that China quickly recognized that the Burmese junta would not welcome foreign militaries operating in its territory and therefore opted instead to make modest donations. This turned out to be fortuitous, as the Sichuan earthquake struck 10 days after the Burma cyclone, creating an urgent demand for Chinese disaster recovery resources at home.

Despite the positive outcomes noted by the U.S. and other militaries from their tsunami disaster missions, it was expected that the PLA would prepare more robust responses to future disasters, should they strike the region. Other than donations of food and supplies, however, the Chinese military did not respond to the Bangladesh cyclone in late 2007, indicating that little progress had been made in building up or demonstrating a crisis management response mechanism or an international, military sea or airlift capacity since the tsunami.

Unlike the U.S. military, which has increasingly embraced the international humanitarian assistance and disaster relief role, including conducting health diplomacy missions in the absence of disasters, the PLA has been much more circumspect. Other than deployments on UN Peacekeeping Operations, the PLA has been reluctant to stretch its legs to perform international disaster relief or humanitarian assistance missions. There are four potential explanations for this cautious approach: the PLA is reluctant; there is existing need at home; concern an overseas deployment would expose weakness; concern about how a PLA deployment might be received internationally (China Brief, January 28, 2005; May 10, 2005; October 13, 2005).

Firstly, reluctance within the PLA could stem from internal debate about whether humanitarian missions could detract from the core war fighting missions—particularly Taiwan scenarios—or possibly divert scarce military resources. Likewise, declaring willingness to respond to international disasters in the Pacific might raise expectations abroad that the PLA would deploy to any and all natural disasters, potentially disappointing countries that do not receive assistance. It is also possible that there is reluctance on the part of PLA medical units to embrace the disaster relief mission. Medical units are attached to hospitals that not only serve PLA soldiers and their families, but paying civilians as well, similar to the market-oriented civilian hospital system. In addition to the significant costs of international relief missions, overseas deployments would not offer any financial benefits to the military hospitals or individual doctors who are dependent on civilian, fee-paying patients.

Secondly, domestic disasters are a regular occurrence in such a large country, raising significant political risks if specialist units are deployed abroad and unable to respond to a domestic crisis in a timely fashion. Thirdly, even more disconcerting to PLA leaders, poor performance in a humanitarian relief mission could reveal deficiencies and weaknesses to a potential future adversary. Similarly, U.S. military capability is so overwhelming that the PLA could be concerned that a modest demonstration would be an embarrassment compared to the United States or other, wealthier nations such as Japan. Lastly, Chinese leaders are uncertain how the international deployment of PLA forces might be perceived by neighboring countries. If the PLA demonstrates its ability to project power far from its own shores, neighboring countries, including India and ASEAN nations, might question China’s aspirations and self-professed “peaceful rise.”

There is some question whether senior civilian and PLA leadership crisis management processes are up to the task of responding promptly and appropriately to a natural disaster overseas. While China has come under criticism for slow responses to emerging crises at home, such as the snow storms during the Spring Festival rush, there are other examples of rapid reactions to domestic natural disasters. The “China International Rescue Medical Team” attached to the People’s Armed Police (PAP) General Hospital responded to the Sichuan earthquake within hours and was airlifted by military aircraft to the hardest hit region (Xinhua News Agency, May 12). That unit is likely China’s most experienced medical rescue team, having deployed abroad several times, including the tsunami and earthquakes in Iran, Pakistan and Algeria.

Why is the Humanitarian Mission Attractive to China?

The Chinese government recognizes the value of humanitarian assistance, medical diplomacy and national responses to international natural disasters. Providing medical assistance to needy countries, particularly in response to natural disasters, improves international image through people-to-people diplomacy as well as effective communications campaigns. Chinese media widely broadcast the PAP General Hospital rescue unit’s efforts in Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami crisis, complete with images of Chinese doctors distributing Chinese medicine and Indonesians gratefully exclaiming, “China good!” (PLA Daily, January 5, 2005).

In addition to positive public relations, international deployments offer a real-world test of military medical response capabilities, including the opportunity to gain experience in the field, fine-tune logistics and test new equipment. Furthermore, the deployments present the opportunity to practice satellite tele-medicine consultations with doctors in the rear. In large-scale relief efforts, deployment could include exposure to other units and the opportunity to learn new techniques and technologies. These deployments can help China’s military medical system become more agile and adaptable, as well as provide valuable lessons about intelligence collection, information sharing and situational awareness.

While the Chinese military currently dedicates few resources to international humanitarian relief and disaster response missions, it is likely that as China’s military continues to modernize, its response will become more robust. Larger units and platforms will likely take on the role, building on the experiences of smaller medical units and yiliaodui with experience in Africa or support of UN peacekeeping missions. The Chinese navy recently launched a new “Type 920” hospital ship, weighing 20,000 tons and purpose-built, joining a handful of existing hospital ships which are converted transports serving with each of the PLA Navy fleets. China is also improving its amphibious warfare capabilities, including commissioning new landing ships with helicopter and hovercraft capabilities. While China’s “gator navy” is primarily focused on a Taiwan scenario, disaster relief operations on China’s periphery are a conceivable future mission. Lastly, China’s future aircraft carrier will likely also be tasked with disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions, both for the operational experience that real-world relief missions bring, but also to reassure neighbors that China seeks to be a responsible neighbor and peaceful regional power [2].

A modernizing PLA, PLA Navy and Air Force that espouses humanitarian and disaster relief mission objectives presents opportunities for the United States, the dominant naval power in the Pacific. The United States should encourage the PLA to take a role in these missions and consider various opportunities to cooperate. Exchange of personnel, joint missions and more extensive communication and collaboration between the two militaries will build trust and demystify the other, increase individual and institutional linkages, which will reduce the possibility of future misunderstanding or miscalculation. Most importantly, the efforts of both militaries to assist victims of disaster or poverty increases security in the region, benefiting not only China but the United States and its allies as well.


1. The author is grateful to Admiral Eric McVadon for his insights which contributed to some concepts presented here. Any errors are the responsibility of the author alone.

2. Author’s interview with Chinese experts in January 2008.