The Limits of Disaster Diplomacy

While many, such as The Atlantic’s Max Fisher, saw in the Japanese earthquake a golden opportunity for China to expand its influence, The Diplomat’s China Power blog argues that “disaster diplomacy” could not fundamentally alter the course of Sino-Japanese relations.

China’s prompt response to Japan’s earthquake allowed the Chinese government to explain to its people that its actions were those of a ‘responsible power,’ and should therefore be understood in the context of China’s increasing efforts to contribute to international post-disaster operations since 2003. Under Hu’s ‘New Historic Mission’ to enlarge the role of China’s military in the non-traditional security sphere, China has sent international rescue teams to Indonesia, Iran, Algeria and Pakistan among other countries. In addition, China has an international rescue training centre in Beijing, the largest of its kind in the Asia-Pacific. China’s assistance to Japan can therefore be understood as a part of its general effort to project the image of a benign rising power ….

In the event of a disaster, the host country decides which foreign contributions it will accept. According to Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, the Japanese government ranked the contributions of other countries in order of priority as determined by the Japanese government. Contributions from the United States were ranked highest at 1, while those from China were initially ranked 4. According to reports, those who deal with China policy within the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs attempted to raise the Chinese ranking, but could only get it as high as a 3.5. The Chinese government is said to have offered an 80-member rescue team and its naval hospital ship, Heping Wanshou, but these weren’t accepted ….

How did the Chinese respond to this rejection? Actually, the decision isn’t widely known about in China, with only those following the news very closely likely to have noticed. The low-key coverage may have been based on concerns within the Chinese government about the possibility of provoking anti-Japanese feelings.

The post does note, though, that the disaster may have had a deeper effect on Chinese views of the Japanese people:

A Chinese professor of public policy in Beijing told me earlier this month that he thought ‘the most important change in the Chinese people’s perceptions of Japan recently has been that the Japanese are increasingly seen to be ‘our fellow human beings, just like us’. He added: ‘The Chinese also suffer many natural disasters. Looking at the suffering of the Japanese people, we realise that we share the same suffering. We can therefore extend our sympathy to the Japanese people’.