PORT MORESBY – Earlier this week China stepped up its soft power incursion into Papua New Guinea and the Pacific with an announcement that it will pre-empt November’s APEC forum in Port Moresby with a Pacific conference of its own also in the national capital.
And yesterday, as if to reinforce the deal, the Chinese naval hospital ship, Peace Ark, slipped into Fairfax Harbour to begin an eight-day humanitarian mission in PNG.
Peace Ark (as it known when on humanitarian service) is better known in China as Daishan Dao, a Type 920 hospital ship of the People's Liberation Army Navy.
In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, Daishan Dao, with her crew of 430 with about 100 medical staff, does not carry offensive weapons.
When the vessel was launched in 2007 the Chinese rationale was to give China a platform to provide quicker humanitarian response to disasters, but some strategic analysts contend that it also allows China to extend its navy's expansionist 'blue water' capabilities.
The Chinese Xinhua news agency reported PNG Defence Force chief of staff, Captain Philip Polewara, extending a warm welcome to the ship and thanking “China and the Chinese people for the aid”.
Peace Ark will conduct medical diagnosis, treatment and academic exchanges with local hospital staff.
It will also be open to the public during its stopover “to further promote cultural understanding and friendship between the two countries”.
Xinhua reported Chinese Ambassador to PNG Xue Bing as saying the mission marked the latest step in the relationship and that it built on prime minister Peter O'Neill’s visit to China last month.
PNG is the first stop on Peace Ark’s current mission which also includes Vanuatu and Fiji.
Since 2008, the ship has visited 37 countries and provided free medical services for more than 180,000 people.