While media attention typically focuses on the hard power role of the US military in the Pacific, the US Navy also invests significant time and energy in the soft power potential of humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in the region. In the second of a series of dispatches from Washington, ASEAN Beat writer Eddie Walsh looks at how China's growing naval ambitions and increasing military humanitarian aid capabilities may be impacting the mission in 2011 and beyond.

The past successes of Western military humanitarian aid missions in the Asia-Pacific haven’t gone unnoticed by China, which is looking to expand its naval influence in the Pacific.

With China having been unable to effectively provide sufficient humanitarian aid to Burma in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, or provide unilateral relief to Southeast Asian states following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Western security analysts have suggested that the Chinese leadership seems to have realizedthe importance of the military for providing international humanitarian aid.

In 2008, China launched Ship 866, often referred to as the ‘Peace Ark.’ As noted in the Chinese media, this purposely built hospital ship makes China ‘one of the few (countries) in the world that has medical care and emergency rescue capabilities on the high seas while also raising the capability of the Chinese navy to accomplish diversified military missions.’

Last year, the Peace Ark embarked on its first major mission, an 88-day military humanitarian aid trip to Africa and South Asia. In China’s first overseas humanitarian mission employing a hospital ship, the Peace Ark’s medical staff provided significant aid to its allies and generated positive media coverage for China, including widespread social media coverage, which served as a public diplomacy win for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

In the long-term, some believe that China's increased military capabilities and naval assertiveness will lead it to attempt to project similar soft power in other areas of the Asia-Pacific, thereby challenging Western strategic influence in the region.

In a recent article for the Hoover Institution, US Navy Commander David Slayton and Craig Hopper evenwent so far as to suggest that the Peace Ark represents a strategic asset for China's blue water projection of hard power: ‘China’s 25,000-ton hospital ship, the Anwei-class (Type 920) Daishandao, or “Peace Ark,” coupled with a similar-sized, newly launched troop ship, all offer simple, cheap transport for hundreds of Chinese personnel.

Policy makers fail to fully comprehend that these platforms, supported by China’s large amphibious cargo vessels, the Danyao-class Fisheries Law Enforcement Command supply ship, and two Dayun-class (Type 904) South Sea bastion supply ships, bolstered by an enormous blue-water civilian fleet and a potent naval militia, can perform well in many amphibious operations short of intense combat.’

Although he believes it unlikely, Reilly suggests that ‘the nightmare scenario for Australia is serious Chinese (or other East Asian) military engagement with one of (Australia's) Pacific Island neighbours,’ which could lead to ‘allegiance to a country outside the Western alliance.’ The United States and the other Pacific Partnership partners almost certainly share this concern.

For this reason, some Western security analysts believe that military humanitarian aid missions like the Pacific Partnership serve as an important tool for preserving the primacy of Western influence in Southeast Asia and the Pacific for the near future.

Others counter that the humanitarian aid mission provides an opportunity for increased cooperation and trust-building between the United States, China, ASEAN and other major powers. They believe the West should welcome such investment in soft power military capabilities by China and push to better integrate Chinese capabilities as part of a regional humanitarian aid response mechanism.

Regardless of the academic debate, Wilson argues: ‘Pacific Partnership isn’t about competition. It’s about enhancing relationships, partnerships, and interoperability in times of calm so that nations in the region can more effectively respond to natural or man-made disasters in a time of crisis.’

Forthis reason, he believes that ‘the Peace Ark mission in South Asia and Africa doesn’t factor into US humanitarian aid missions in Asia Pacific. The US welcomes all nations who share a common interest in maintaining a stable and secure region and are dedicated to enhancing HA/DR efforts’ in the Pacific. Indeed, the United States welcomed four Chinese observers to the 2009 sister mission – Continuing Promise – in the US Southern Command’s Area of Responsibility.

Although China hasn’t requested observer status for Pacific Partnership, Wilson’s comments suggest at least that the United States isn’t opposed to discussing long-term Chinese involvement in future Pacific missions.

US pledges wider military presence across Pacific Rim

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates in Singapore - 4 June 2011Mr Gates is stepping down as US defence secretary at the end of June

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The US says it will expand its military presence across the Pacific Rim despite budget worries and the ongoing commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Singapore, said the US would strengthen its military ties with Australia and Singapore.

He said new ships and technologies would be deployed to protect allies and shipping lanes in the region.

Many Asian nations have become fearful of China's recent military expansion.

Mr Gates is due to step down as defence secretary at the end of June and hand over to Leon Panetta, currently the director of the CIA.

The pledge comes despite US plans to cut military spending.

Mr Gates acknowledged the strain the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had put on the armed forces and on public appetite for military interventions.

The US has significantly reduced troop numbers in Iraq and is looking to do the same this year in Afghanistan.

'Positive trajectory'

"America is, as the expression goes, putting our money where our mouth is with respect to this part of the world, and will continue to do so," Mr Gates told the Shangri-La Dialogue, the region's foremost security forum.

US aircraft carrier USS George Washington, in the Sea of Japan on 10 December 2010Could Chinese missile systems target US aircraft carriers in the region?

"The United States and Asia will only become more inextricably linked over the course of this century.

"These realities... argue strongly for sustaining our commitments to allies while maintaining a robust military engagement and deterrent posture across the Pacific Rim," he said.

"In the coming years, the United States military is also going to be increasing its port calls, naval engagements and multilateral training efforts with multiple countries throughout the region."

Mr Gates said military ties with its traditional allies Japan and South Korea would be modernised while partnerships with Australia and Singapore would be enhanced to be better able to respond to humanitarian disasters or other crises.

He met China's Defence Minister Liang Guanglie and said the two countries' military relationship was "on a positive trajectory", after setbacks in recent years.

US arms sales to Taiwan and China's claim to disputed waters that the US sees as international remain irritants.