- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
In October, China’s massive, state-of-the-art hospital ship, the Peace Ark, completed a four-month deployment to eight countries, coordinating goodwill medical missions and running emergency response exercises with other navies. The ship is one of just a handful of floating hospitals in the world and boasts 300 beds, 20 ICUs and 8 operating theatres, treating patients in Myanmar, Djibouti and Cuba. Yet it remains berthed in Shanghai in the face of unfolding devastation wrought by Super Typhoon Haiyan.
According to the latest government figures, at least 3,361 people were killed by the storm surge that flattened parts of the Philippines last Friday, while 12,487 others were injured. Medical teams on the ground are struggling to handle the crisis, particularly as a lack of clean water and sanitation has fueled the spread of diseases like cholera, hepatitis, typhoid, dysentery and leptospirosis. In an outpouring of humanitarian assistance, Britain has sent its largest helicopter carrier, the Illustrious, to the country, loaded with medical supplies and a promise of $32 million in aid. The U.S., for its part, has dispatched two Navy ships, an aircraft carrier, 5,000 troops and is also preparing to deploy the USN Mercy, a hospital ship currently berthed in San Diego.
State media in China have urged the government to deploy Peace Ark in the wake of Haiyan, but the ship, which is well-positioned to respond quickly and effectively to disasters like this one, is unmoved.
China’s underwhelming response to the developing crisis has become a point of contention in the region. Its perceived stinginess made headlines again on Thursday, when it became clear that Ikea — the Swedish furniture company — had donated more money to Haiyan relief efforts than the world’s second largest economy. Experts attribute China’s lukewarm attitude to its longstanding maritime dispute with the Philippines, as well as to the U.S. military’s effective posturing in the region.
But as the death toll climbs and the crisis worsens, the Peace Ark’s stillness grows more unnerving.