Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Were you paying attention to Pacific Partnership 2010? If you weren't, it is OK... but the Navy PAOs out in the Pacific did a fair to good job getting the word out what the USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) was out there doing. The ship deployed back on May 1st and wrapped up business on August 24th, and is expected to return to San Diego later this month.

These naval medical diplomacy deployments are interesting to observe because the success of these types of deployments are very difficult to measure. I have been sitting on some outstanding information provided to me regarding the USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) deployment to Haiti earlier this year - contemplating how to measure success or failure. Both missions are different of course, Comfort responded to disaster while Mercy is a diplomatic mission part of a larger soft power strategy. The bigger question that lingers over any US Navy hospital ship deployment is whether or not we are getting value for the effort - a return of state investment if you will. I understand the polling methodology the Navy uses, but I also find any kind of polling measurement to be questionable, at best.

Until today, I have had a hard time finding some piece of tangible, meaningful evidence that the US Navy should be doing this. Like i said - until today when I saw this.

A Chinese navy hospital ship will leave China for the Gulf of Aden on Sept. 1 to offer medical services to Chinese escort missions in the waters, the Chinese Defense Ministry said here Monday.

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) hospital ship Peace Ark will also provide medical services to officers and soldiers of other countries conducting anti-piracy activities in the waters.

The ship will also call at Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles and Bangladesh.
There is even a mention of the deployment on the official Chinese government website. Andrew Erickson provided his thoughts on his blog today:
This promises to be an extremely positive Chinese contribution to regional security, and illustrates the increasing potential of Beijing to serve as a responsible maritime stakeholder.
I'm not sure I would go that far, but it is certainly an interesting development and could indeed end up as Andrew describes. I see the event itself differently though.

The forward deployment of a PLA Navy hospital ship is the best affirmation I have seen to date regarding the success of our own naval medical diplomacy deployments for the purposes of soft power to specific regions - and in particular the Pacific. While the PLA Navy has grown fairly rapidly over the last decade, the PLA Navy has not actually attempted to mimic US Navy patterns in any meaningful way in terms of deployment patterns or even operational methods. Sure they sent ships to Somalia, but the PLA Navy has almost exclusively been involved in convoy escorts - which is not similar to US Navy anti-pirate operations. I also do not consider PLA Navy deployments of a few surface vessels around the world that make port appearances for domestic political propaganda a compelling comparison to US Navy activity.

The key to this deployment for me is how this represents the first time during the rise of the PLA Navy where we can legitimately claim the PLA Navy is imitating the behavior of the US Navy. The imitation by the PLA Navy of US Navy medical diplomacy deployments is the strongest indication I have seen to date regarding the positive perception of influence a proactive hospital ship deployment is producing - because imitation does represent the sincerest form of flattery.

From a perspective of justification to Congress, I think the PLA Navy hospital ship deployment represents a much stronger indicator of our own success than polls do, or at least the regional perception of our successes with this type of activity in the Pacific.

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