At a time the Royal Australian Air Force is busy delivering humanitarian aid and military stores to communities under threat from Islamic State militants, a Chinese Navy medical assistance voyage to help some of our South Pacific neighbours calls for a quick look at how well we’re conducting military humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) close to home as well as further afield.
The People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) launched its first modern hospital ship, the Peace Ark, in 2007, five years before it commissioned its first aircraft carrier, partly because doing so was technically easier, but also because it offers a powerful tool for international engagement. Five times smaller than its US Navy equivalent, the USS Mercy class—which was designed first and foremost to provide global support for major combat operations such as the First Gulf War—the Peace Ark is sometimes referred to as a humanitarian ship, given its primary soft-power mission.
The vessel is perhaps best-known for spearheading China’s belated contribution to clean-up efforts in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan, and for participating in this year’s US-led RIMPAC exercise off Hawaii alongside three other PLA-N warships (and a covert stalker). Yet it’s also clocked-up many sea miles quietly signalling China’s growing influence and clout in any corner of the world where Beijing has significant interests. Over the past month, that corner has been the vast expanse we like to think of as our neighbourhood, including territory close to Australia that sits across our direct approaches. The Peace Ark arrived in Port Moresby today ahead of Independence Day celebrations next week, following a pre-election goodwill visit to Suva, and stops in Tonga and Vanuatu. In each case its crew have provided medical treatment and minor surgery on-board or in local hospitals for many members of the public. PLA-N medical officers hope to treat over a thousand patients from the ship’s berth at the PNGDF naval base before it departs mid next week.
All that isn’t to suggest we need fret about the port visits, order blueprints for our own hospital ship, or preserve ADF resources to pursue interests only in our immediate region. Such HADR offers a rare opportunity for win-win cooperation, whereby locals get free healthcare, China gains kudos, and we can help foster normal and normalising international engagement by the PLA in a weapons-free and non-zero sum environment. (A pair of ADF medical officers are also accompanying the Vanuatu and PNG legs of the cruise at the invitation of the Vice Chair of the Central Military Commission). But if our near seas aren’t necessarily more competitive, the Peace Ark’s first South Pacific cruise reminds us they’re more congested, and should give pause to check that our own HADR settings are up to scratch.
Here, a look at US and Chinese experience suggests we’re missing untapped potential but also that we’ll need to be more innovative to fulfil that promise.
First, Australia should take heed of this legitimate and effective approach to relationship-building and seek to emulate it. Although we aren’t about to reacquire large white warships, we’ll shortly receive into service two large grey amphibious ships (LHDs). They’re set to become some of the most useful platforms for operating around our vast coastline and beyond. When at full operating capability, and working alongside complementary ADF elements, they’ll be versatile platforms for force projection. But short of dire contingencies, there are creative ways they may be employed to bolster regional security and stability though adroit defence diplomacy, and China’s example provides a useful pointer.
A reflection on US Navy and US Marine Corps experience is also instructive: when US Navy LHDs routinely conduct short humanitarian assistance missions in places like East Timor and Indonesia, they earn immense goodwill while materially assisting the needy with reconstruction, and medical, dental and other support to local communities. Those operations test a wide spectrum of military skills considered essential for complex warfighting, but are also valuable for HADR. US hospital ships also fly the flag in their secondary humanitarian role.
As we look to engage more closely with Indonesia and other ASEAN and South Pacific neighbours, the use of the LHDs should be tied closely to Australia’s regional engagement and aid priorities—its flagship defence diplomacy activities. ADF engineers, medical staff and logisticians should be prominently employed in these kinds of tasks, and their regional counterparts should be invited on-board, alongside the Australian teams, to deploy and carry out agreed tasks.
Suggestions the US needs to refresh HADR activities that are getting a bit stale, and achieve more humanitarian and reputational bang for its HADR buck, may apply to our efforts too. Even strong supporters of US Navy humanitarian work warn the benefits of fleeting encounters can be brief and episodic. In fairness, the ADF has updated long-running activities such as disaster-recovery Exercise Longreach beyond just trotting-out the JMAP planning model; takes an integrated regional approach to dealing with unexploded WWII ordnance; contributes to DFAT-Aid support for partner countries’ disaster headquarters, policies and plans; and treats the centrepiece of our regional HADR efforts—participation in US-led Exercise Pacific Partnership—as an important activity for HQJOC. But even Pacific Partnership has been criticised for not leaving a more enduring capacity-building legacy or evolving into a more nimble tool to help respond to actual disasters occurring nearby.
As AUSMIN has just reaffirmed the importance of HADR cooperation for helping shape a positive security environment, increased military construction, medical and other engagement with our neighbours could be a ground-breaking activity.
John Blaxland is a senior fellow at ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and the author of The Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard. Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of US Navy.