China is sending the navy’s “Peace Ark” hospital ship on a tour of the South Pacific at a time of growing competition with the United States and its allies for influence in the region.
The 14,300-metric-tonne ship will call at Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and East Timor, providing medical assistance to Chinese citizens as well as residents, the defence ministry said in a statement late on Sunday.
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“It is to present our image as a responsible big country,” said navy spokesperson Liu Wensheng.
The ship, painted white with red crosses on its sides, employs more than 100 medical staff in 16 different clinical and auxiliary departments, and can handle as many as 1,000 patients at any one time.
There are multiple operating rooms and nursing stations, as well as a blood bank, according to the state-run China Daily.
Beijing has been building closer ties with countries in the Pacific in recent years, some of which once had formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, causing concern in the US, Australia and New Zealand, but also within some of the countries themselves.
China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands last year and hopes to build similar ties with other Pacific countries. Its foreign minister has said relations with the Solomon Islands can serve as a model.
China’s overtures have led the US to step up its activities with the region.
Last year, US President Joe Biden invited Pacific leaders to an unprecedented summit at the White House, pledging to triple funding for the region. It also reopened its embassy in the Solomon Islands in February after a 30-year absence. In May, it opened an embassy in Tonga and is also planning one in Vanuatu.
The Peace Ark, the largest hospital ship of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, has previously toured countries in the Pacific and joined relief efforts following natural disasters, including Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013.
Commissioned in 2008, Peace Ark has provided medical services for roughly 250,000 people from 43 countries, according to state media.