China’s Risk Equation: Using Military Forces in International Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Activities

Asia Paper January 1, 2013, pp. 69

China’s first use of its military forces to undertake international humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) mission was in 2002. Since then it has been involved in 12 missions involving several hundred personnel.
Given that HADR missions are usually viewed as a benign use of military forces and generate benefits for both the assisting state as well as the affected state, it would seem self evident that it is in China’s best interest to rapidly expand its HADR involvement. However, this simple analysis fails to consider that military involvement in HADR can have significant downside risks. For example, tensions could increase if Chinese HADR efforts become characterized as cynical advancement of its maritime power projection agenda, or seen as camouflage for acquiring more expeditionary capabilities. The use of its military forces for HADR also poses domestic risks for China for if its disaster contributions are viewed as having significant failings, this will undermine confidence by the Chinese people in the People’s Liberation Army, and by association the Chinese Communist Party.
By appreciating both the risks as well as the potential benefits to China of its involvement in HADR, a more nuanced understanding of why it does or does not become engaged in HADR activities can be developed. This in turn will enable a more accurate assessment to be made of future HADR involvement by China. This paper identifies the potential benefits and risks to China of its involvement in HADR, with the next stage of the research project seeking to quantify the likelihood and magnitude of both.

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