Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 2

The devastating tsunami that crashed ashore throughout Asia on December 26, 2004 sparked the largest international reconstruction effort in recent history. As governments and NGOs across the globe mobilized to provide aid to affected regions, political rivalries were temporarily put aside in the spirit of altruism. Nations rapidly deployed their weapons of war as instruments of peace to rescue survivors and deliver aid. However, the massive humanitarian response notwithstanding, politics were never very far from the surface.

China’s response to the disaster reflected its aspirations to play a more significant role in the region, as well as a desire to gain regional acceptance of its stated aim of peaceful development. Though China has certainly solidified its political and economic relations in the region, its response to the disaster reveals lingering concerns about the country’s “peaceful rise”, as the military’s absence seems to indicate a political calculation to keep the PLA out of the relief effort. While China’s use of “soft power” has, for the moment, outpaced its ability to challenge American dominance in the region, its continued presence over the long term is unquestionable. China’s long-term response to the tsunami, like its short term diplomatic effort, will likely play to its strengths and ensure that China’s regional interests are advanced.

A “Big Country” Image

In response to the disaster, China launched its largest-ever foreign relief operation. Premier Wen Jiabao flew to Jakarta to participate in the conference of world leaders and pledged over $60 million in aid to affected countries. China’s status as a developing nation that receives aid (and is the largest single recipient of World Bank loans), made Beijing’s decision to become a major donor a significant diplomatic statement. Within hours of the disaster, China mobilized medical teams from the People’s Armed Police and several provincial health bureaus to head to affected areas, bringing with them material, including food, medicine, generators and tents. That effort was followed up with cash and material donations as well as local fundraising efforts in the following days.

The Chinese media made no qualms about stating China’s aspirations for the relief operation in Asia, summed up in a January 5 China Daily article: “This shows that Chinese people are their true friends and also shows that China is a responsible big country.” The relief operation was presented as further evidence of China’s benevolent and “responsible” intentions in the region, consistent with their decision not to devalue the RMB during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

China’s aid effort has also been consistent with its desire to take a diplomatic lead in the developing world, while at the same time enhancing relations with ASEAN nations, through carefully calculating its aid response. China hopes that as a developing country which emphasizes mutual respect and sovereignty, it can expect less resentment than G-7 nations who pledged more or got there faster. China was the first nation to offer aid to the Somali government-in-exile and was the largest donor to Myanmar (Burma). It has offered to provide meteorological data from its domestically developed Fengyun-2 satellite, at once establishing its generosity as well as its technological prowess. Despite pledging a fraction of the developed nations, China expects to gain appreciation from recipients because their aid is more heartfelt and they have given what they can. But even as China attempts to paint itself as a peaceful neighbor, many in the region remain uncomfortable with this emerging giant.

We are not a Threat

Perhaps to assuage such fears, China did not deploy the PLA to carry out relief operations. Military units from the United States, India, Britain, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, Germany and Bangladesh deployed rapidly with ships and aircraft to search for survivors and deliver aid. The massive U.S. military response left little doubt about its dominance in the region, sending over 12,000 troops and 21 ships, including an aircraft carrier. In contrast to the Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria handing a $100,000 check to the Somali president, the U.S. military response extended throughout the region, and included joint U.S.-German coastline rescue and food distribution missions in Somalia, providing a powerful counterpoint to China’s diplomatic response.

In fact, China’s military response was largely limited to domestic procurement and logistics, flying military supplies to civilian airports in China for delivery by civilian aircraft to Jakarta, Bangkok, Colombo and Male in the Maldives. A medical unit from the People’s Armed Police general hospital which traveled to Indonesia, and a small team from a Beijing Military Area Command engineering unit also deployed to Indonesia to search through the rubble, were the major military commitments abroad. Instead, Chinese military units reportedly collected funds from officers and soldiers to contribute to the relief effort.

However, there is some speculation as to why the PLA did not play a greater role in the Chinese relief effort. Beijing must have faced a dilemma over deploying the PLA. Certainly, there were some within the government and military who advocated a limited mobilization to “show the flag”. However, there were several practical and political considerations that prevented the government from ordering the PLA to send troops. First and foremost, any decision to deploy the PLA is politically very sensitive to the Chinese leadership. China has long avoided involvement in other nation’s affairs, only joining the UN special committee on peace keeping in 1988. There was significant concern that sending PLA ships or troops would rekindle concerns about “the China threat”, both in the region and in the United States, potentially undoing significant investment in the effort to sell China’s “peaceful rise” to neighbors. The decision to deploy might also have risked unfavorable comparisons to other nations, which have better equipped and technologically more advanced units. Furthermore, China maintains security interests in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese leadership perhaps calculated that a military response might not be the best way to pursue those interests. In the end, though, the only real dilemma for China’s leadership is that a failure to act might be interpreted by some as the inability to act.

That said, one should not discount the significant practical reasons why the PLA was not in a position to deploy in any meaningful way. Without invitations from affected countries, the military could not even consider responding. The PLA does not regularly operate outside its own waters and lacks a robust logistics infrastructure and the experience to support missions taking place outside its borders. Perhaps most importantly, the PLA decision making process is slow and deliberative, particularly in a crisis. The PLA was not apt to react quickly to an overseas disaster, particularly considering their measured decisions to deploy troops to domestic disaster relief efforts in the past such as the 1998 floods.

Pushing the Chinese Agenda

China has invested heavily in building diplomatic and trade relations consistent with its long-term focus on developing its domestic economy. China’s long term effort to assist tsunami-stricken nations will likely play to its traditional strengths – providing Chinese-made material and technical support to build infrastructure – in line with its global assistance strategy.

And, as can be expected tsunami relief is only one part in the larger soft power battle between the U. S. and China in the region. Both Wen Jiabao and George Bush are planning state visits to India later this year, and both China and the U.S. are planning joint military exercises with India. Wen Jiabao found time to meet privately with India’s External Affairs Minister on the sidelines of the Jakarta aid summit on January 7, expressing China’s determination to maintain the positive momentum of China-India ties. While an operative China-India multilateral security mechanism seems a distant prospect, when the tsunami struck on December 26, the Indian Army Chief, N.C. Vij was visiting Beijing. However, neither China nor India needed to be reminded that the principal power in the Indian Ocean is the U.S. military. The tsunami will probably not hinder, and might even accelerate, the current trend of rapprochement between New Deli and Beijing.

While the U.S. government has furthered regional relations with its tangible aid response, resentment in the region towards the world’s superpower remains. Did China’s decision to keep the PLA ashore further an image of a “peaceful rise”? Beijing hopes so.

Drew Thompson is Assistant Director at the Freeman Chair in China Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. Thompson worked in Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai for 7 years in the 1990s, and studied at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in 1992.