Can China Offer the World "Public Goods"?

People's Liberation Army (Navy) ship PLA(N) Peace Ark. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

As the US and its allies go about defining a new strategy for the Asia-Pacific, a major mistake will be made if the only focus is on “rocks and reefs.”

The “beltway buzz” around think tank outfits over recent South China Sea developments is almost palpable. After all, defense analysis related to the Western Pacific has proved to be a potent growth industry. However, a more complete and balanced appreciation of contemporary Chinese foreign policy includes the realization that Beijing’s “new assertiveness” is simultaneously accompanied by an impressive degree of restraint.

When terrorists attacked the PRC embassy in Kyrgyzstan a few weeks back, China did not unleash special forces or drones. When Vietnamese mobs enraged by deployment of a Chinese exploration rig near the Paracels rampaged through the country attacking Chinese (and other Asians mistakenly thought to be Chinese), Beijing refrained from making an assault on Hanoi’s numerous and vulnerable outposts in the disputed maritime zone. When a new, democratic government took power in Myanmar and called into question a range of major Chinese investment projects, Beijing did not respond by sending in an airborne division to secure its interests, but rather sought to use diplomacy to adjust to the new political landscape in Naypyidaw. Most important, China has rather remarkably not resorted to the use of force in a significant way against any other state in more than three decades. Restraint and prudence are admirable qualities in the practice of foreign policy, with a growing cast of American thinkers calling for a greater degree of restraint in US national security policy.

China is actually often criticized for being too restrained – failing to act on the world stage even when it might have the capabilities (military/diplomatic/economic) to make a positive difference.  For example, some would say that Afghanistan, a neighbor of China, presents a situation where a major global security challenge could be alleviated by a much stronger Chinese approach. In fact, a discussion has been developing among researchers and strategists in Beijing over the last decade regarding the imperative for China to offer “public goods” [公共产品] to both the regional and larger international system. This edition of Dragon Eye will peek into that discussion and also briefly explore one obvious example of China’s attempt to offer public goods in the maritime domain:  Peace Ark, one of the world’s few purpose-built hospital ship.

Among the very first Chinese scholars to highlight the imperative to provide public goods was the Peking University scholar Wang Yizhou (王逸舟) back in 2012. His argumentation was rather innovative in that it seemed to turn many conventional Chinese historical interpretations upside down, suggesting that British hegemony had promoted navigational exploration and market-oriented trade, while the successor US post-war dominance had facilitated the development of many international organizations.  If China was going to escape its unflattering image abroad as a “lame colossus,” [跛足巨人] it was going to have to make similarly major contributions to the international community. Since that time, discussion of provisioning public goods has mushroomed in the most important Chinese international relations journals. For example, the important journal of Peking University The Journal of International Studies [国际政治研究] ran a series of articles in mid-2015 on “public goods,” including a paper on “Regional Public Goods and Changes of the East Asian Regional System during the Ming Dynasty.”

For the PLA Navy, the most obvious symbol of its commitment to the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) mission has been the hospital ship, Peace Ark [和平方舟], which entered fleet service in 2008. The roughly 14,000 ton ship is quite unique in that it is one of the only purpose built large hospital ship in the world, since other ships with a similar mission have mostly been converted merchant or passenger ships. With 300 beds and eight operating rooms, the ship represents a formidable mobile hospital capability – though there have been some “teething problems” as discussed below.