Dozens of doctors and nurses fanned out from a Chinese navy hospital ship Tuesday to treat poor Jamaicans as part of a global humanitarian mission to portray China's rapidly growing military as a responsible power.
The People's Liberation Army's 584-foot-long (178-meter-long) Peace Ark carries more than 100 medical volunteers who provide free surgery, CAT scans, eye care and other procedures.
The floating hospital was launched three years ago and is making its second foreign trip, the Chinese Embassy said. It is on a roughly 100-day journey around the Caribbean, where the United States is the largest investment source and military partner.
The aim of the operation, dubbed "Harmonious Mission," is to soften the image of China's 2.3 million-member military and boost its ties with other nations' armed forces.
"It's trying to use military powers in ways that are reassuring and not threatening," said David M. Lampton, director of the China studies program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Chinese have a strategy of simultaneously growing their hard power but using it in a soft way that's reassuring and therefore doesn't build a coalition of enemies against it."
The Peace Ark has already visited Cuba and after Jamaica is scheduled to go to Trinidad and Tobago.
Chinese navy Lt. Cmdr. Chen Yong Peng, leader of a team working at a clinic in the Jamaican capital of Kingston, said the mission allows military personnel to build relationships with regional authorities and has nothing to do with countering U.S. influence.
"Our team of medical staff is doing all kinds of surgeries and operations, nearly everything except organ transplants," he said through a navy translator. "China has had a long history of relations with Jamaica and other places in the Caribbean."
Hundreds of Jamaicans lined up for hours beneath a blazing sun outside the clinic in Kingston's gritty Olympic Gardens area. The crowd of women and a few children and men struggled to keep their places in line.
"My eyes are getting worse and I'm hoping to get some glasses. I've been told to get glasses for five years but I just can't afford them," said 48-year-old Pearlene Campbell, who arrived at the clinic before dawn. "I hope these people can help me."
Doctor diplomacy has long been practiced in Latin America, most notably by Cuba's communist government, which each year sends thousands of doctors to provide free care in poor countries in the region. Venezuela also finances many of these missions.
Earlier this year, an 894-foot (272-meter) U.S. Navy hospital ship brought state-of-the-art medical care to Jamaica as part of a five-month goodwill mission to nine countries in the Caribbean and Latin America.
The Chinese military took its first big stab at overseas disaster relief last year, sending helicopters to help after floods in Pakistan. Last month, the Chinese air force flew 7,000 tents to Pakistan after more flooding and it is shipping aid to flooded areas of Thailand. China also has become the biggest contributor of manpower to U.N. peacekeeping missions.
The U.S. has been generally supportive of the Chinese military's new humanitarian drive, saying that boosts transparency and chances for peaceful interactions.
But Lampton, the Johns Hopkins analyst, said the Chinese military's goodwill missions may cause Washington anxiety in the future. "China's navy and soon air force will be moving further and further into the global commons, which has traditionally been dominated by the U.S.," he said.
China is also busily ramping up investment in the Caribbean and Latin America.
In September, a Chinese delegation toured the Caribbean announcing various grants and loans up to $1 billion to bolster its economic relationships in the region.
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