We Got a Peek Inside China’s Hospital Ship
‘Peace Ark’ is Beijing’s goodwill ambassador
We’ve been inside the Chinese navy’s new hospital ship Peace Ark.
It was July 12 in Pearl Harbor. The blazing white Peace Ark had already been in Hawaii for more than two weeks for the huge Rim of the Pacific naval war game, which brought together dozens of warships from all over the world.
A Chinese sailor lounged in the sun on an outdoor extension of the ship’s bridge. A group of sailors kicked a soccer ball on the fenced-off concrete dock. Another group had just returned from shopping in Honolulu carrying bags bearing the brand names Levi’s, Diesel and Coach.
We stepped aboard.
At first glance, Peace Ark looks like a cruise ship. But a quick tour inside the 584-foot-long vessel reveals her for what she is—a well-outfitted symbol of Beijing’s growing “soft power.”
Peace Ark carries top-notch equipment—much of it foreign in origin—and has enough space and personnel to make her the equivalent of a full-service emergency hospital.
The presence of the Chinese ship at RIMPAC was highly political. Beijing clearly meant Peace Ark’s visit to Hawaii to emphasize the gentler side of China’s military—at a time when the China is clashing with its neighbors over disputed islands in the western Pacific.
Peace Ark is smaller than the U.S. Navy’s own hospital ships, including the 894-foot Mercy, which in July rested on the side of the pier opposite her Chinese counterpart. Peace Ark has just a third as many patient beds as Mercy.
Peace Ark is unarmed, although during our visit two naval guards in white uniforms—one packing a QBZ-95 assault rifle—kept watch over the gangway leading from pier to ship.
Peace Ark’s decor reflects her mission. On the first deck is a large framed poster of the vessel, with the slogan “Loyalty, Responsibility, Honor, Harmony” in Chinese and English.
There’s also a poster depicting Florence Nightingale, the heroic nurse of the Crimean War—and “Love, Patience, Carefulness, Responsibility,” again in two languages.
Our guides led us down a passageway—floor painted green to represent health—into Peace Ark’s pre-operations rooms. Most of the signage is in English and Chinese.
It was obvious that China relies on foreign companies for much of its military medical technology. One X-ray machine bore than name of Dutch firm Philips Healthcare.
From pre-op, patients would proceed into the operating suites. There we saw beds, instrument tables, a defibrillator and blood humidifiers. The machines are mostly Philips-brand.
The ship has the same diagnostic equipment you might find in a civilian hospital, including two X-rays, an ultrasound machine and a C-T scanner.
“We can pretty much do anything,” Senior Capt. Sun Tao said—except internal organ transplants or treating heart disease, he added.
One of the few Chinese-made machines—which our guides insisted we see—is this TL-219 blood humidifier, a product of the Beijing MEDER Medical Science & Technology Company and the navy.
The TL-219 is the “first system in the market to complete blood purifications and function normally in motion environment,” a brochure claimed.
The second deck holds the bulk of the ship’s resources, including a communications room wired to closed-circuit television for keeping watch over the corridors and patient rooms.
There’s also a direct satellite line to Beijing’s PLA General Hospital. This corridor also leads to the ward for seriously wounded patients.
Peace Ark is a Chinese vessel, and perhaps not surprisingly there’s a clinic on board for traditional Chinese medicine including acupuncture, massage and cupping therapy.
Peace Ark even has her own gynecology clinic.
It doesn’t appear the Peace Ark has many methods for getting patients aboard—at least not while underway at sea. There’s a landing pad on the ship’s stern for a Z-9 helicopter. There are small boats on davits and a hanging basket for hauling people from boat to ship.
Peace Ark is at her best when operating from a dock.
We must emphasize that Peace Ark’s mission is humanitarian in nature. The other Chinese ships at RIMPAC—a destroyer, a frigate and their supporting oil tanker—are for war.
Which is why Peace Ark is great for diplomacy. Her very existence is supposed to be proof that China can be a friend to other countries. Since commissioning, Peace Ark has sailed on several goodwill cruises, offering free medical care in the Indian Ocean and The Philippines.
The U.S. previously had invited the Chinese flotilla to RIMPAC in 2012, but Beijing declined. U.S.-Chinese relations arguably have worsened since then, following repeated Chinese provocations. So it’s a good thing that China attended RIMPAC this year—and brought along its peace vessel.
Some cooperation is better than none.
But the U.S. Navy, for one, seems wary. While Chinese sailors kicked their soccer ball around on the dock that day in July, American helicopters were taking turns landing on the Japanese helicopter carrier Ise a few miles of the Oahu coast—with no Chinese ships in sight.