Peace Ark, China’s new PLA Navy hospital ship arrived on Saturday in Havana Bay, Cuba. The ship is currently on a three month deployment in the Caribbean (Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Costa Rica), in an attempt to boost China’s soft power in the region:
China’s presence in Latin America has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years and it has become the creditor of last resort for cash-strapped Cuba.
Cuba owes several billion dollars to China, and earlier this year the two governments signed a series of bilateral accords that will increase Chinese participation on Cuban onshore and offshore oil exploration and in other areas of Cuban life.
The two governments are negotiating a deal for China to lead a $6 billion refurbishment of a refinery in Cienfuegos on Cuba’s southern coast, with Venezuela providing financial backing for the project.
That Peace Ark is in the Caribbean is not surprising. What is surprising is the fact that the Chinese military built the ship in the first place. A dedicated hospital ship has only two uses: to receive mass-casualties from a large amphibious landing (a la Normandy) and increase a country’s soft power. Given that an invasion of the latter is unlikely in the foreseeable future, something Chinese military officials must be aware of, the vessel represents a significant investment in soft power. It will be interesting to see if the Chinese invest more in this health diplomacy approach, or if this is a one-off experiment.
Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D. specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy.