China's Peace Ark hospital ship is finishing up its four-week visit to the Pacific islands. Its tour covered Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea and was an important step in improving China's image in the region.

Part of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the ship is staffed by over 100 medical personnel and equipped with 300 beds, eight operating rooms and over 200 types of medical devices. On a 'harmonious mission' to provide medical services, its purpose was 'to carry forward the international humanitarian spirit, strengthen exchanges between the militaries, and promote the view of harmony', according to Rear Admiral Shen Hao, commanding officer of the mission.

Although Pacific islands locals may not have used such superlatives, the tour proved to be a big hit. It treated up to 1000 patients per day free of charge, and provided a range of services including pediatrics, ophthalmology, dental, surgery, obstetrics and traditional Chinese medicine. Health services in the region are often poor, particularly in rural or remote areas away from island capitals. Major surgeries require trips to Australia, New Zealand or Singapore, or else go untreated. So it was of no surprise to see reports of people lining up from 3am to take advantage of the services.

Local medical officers in each country worked on board alongside Chinese PLAN personnel. The Peace Ark mission even provided the opportunity for cooperation with Australia, with two Australian Defence Force medical officers joining their Chinese counterparts for the Vanuatu and PNG legs. 

China also provides other health aid in the form of Chinese medical teams — a key component of its aid program around the world. In the Pacific, PNG, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu and Micronesia have had these teams for many years. Doctors typically serve two-year rotations and are often surprised at the demand for their services.

As in other parts of the world, China has experienced a backlash in the Pacific islands region. There are concerns about the 'influx' of new migrant communities. The poor quality of some Chinese construction, often funded through foreign aid loans, has prompted questions about the ongoing costs of such assistance. And there is an underlying worry in some countries about the potential long-term implications of holding so much debt to the Chinese Government.

China is starting to realise that winning hearts is a difficult task. In that regard, the Peace Ark has proven to be an easy soft-power win.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.