Chinese navy’s floating hospital visits Solomon Islands as part of soft-power mission

The U.S. Navy hospital ship Mercy is expected in the Solomon Islands in November during the Pacific Games.
By Gina Maka’a for BenarNews
2023.08.22
Honiara, Solomon Islands
Chinese navy’s floating hospital visits Solomon Islands as part of soft-power mission People queue to take a tour of the Chinese navy hospital ship on Aug. 19, 2023 after it docked in Honiara, Solomon Islands.
Gina Maka’a/BenarNews

China’s navy hospital ship Peace Ark is docked for a week in the Solomon Islands, a hotspot in the U.S.-China rivalry in the Pacific, underlining the soft power battle to shape regional opinion.

The floating hospital, which arrived at the capital Honiara’s port on Saturday, has also visited Kiribati, Tonga and Vanuatu as part of its current mission to provide free medical treatment in Pacific island nations, many of which struggle to provide sufficient basic healthcare.

The U.S. Navy hospital ship, Mercy, visited the Solomon Islands in August last year and will again be docked in Honiara in November to provide medical care when the city hosts the 24-nation Pacific Games

A substantial crowd greeted the Peace Ark’s arrival in Honiara and people have queued near the port since Sunday, when the doctors and nurses aboard began providing treatment.

Honiara resident Hugo Make, who has been experiencing stomach pain, said the Peace Ark’s time in the city was an “opportunity for more efficient and accessible healthcare.” 

It was “frustrating,” he said, to have to queue for long periods at clinics in Honiara, especially when they often lacked the necessary medical supplies.

The Solomon Islands has been China’s highest profile success in building influence among Pacific island countries in recent years. 

The island nation’s government switched its diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 2019 and last year signed a security pact with China, alarming the U.S. and allies such as Australia, who fear it could pave the way for a Chinese military presence.

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The Chinese navy’s hospital ship Peace Ark is pictured docked at Honiara International Port in the Solomon Islands on Aug. 19, 2023. Credit: Gina Maka’a/BenarNews

Solomon Islands Deputy Prime Minister Manasseh Maelanga and China’s ambassador to Honiara Li Ming attended a welcoming ceremony for the Peace Ark on the weekend. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare visited the ship on Sunday.  

“Today, we extend our heartfelt gratitude to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army navy for their dedication in promoting friendship and cooperation between our nations,” Maelanga said.

Eileen Natuzzi, a Pacific islands health expert and affiliate faculty at Georgetown University’s Centre for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies, has said that the hulking white hulled hospital ships are only “big public relations” for the nations that operate them.    

Military medical missions do not address the significant health system issues that people living in Pacific Island countries currently face, she said in a July commentary for the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. 

“These problems require a much deeper long-term commitment than the Mercy or Peace Ark can achieve,” she said.

A Solomon Islands doctor, who did not want to be named, told RFA-affiliated news service BenarNews the government needed to provide answers about the country’s shortages of medicines and medical supplies.

He said he was thankful for the hospital ship visits.

“It’s a relief for our people that both the USA and China have sent their floating hospitals to assist us,” he said. 

The United States Agency for International Development is also trying to show a greater commitment to the Pacific in response to China’s inroads. 

Samantha Power, the USAID administrator, visited Papua New Guinea and Fiji earlier this month for the official opening of an enlarged mission in the region.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.

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