2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami: China’s Response to the Disaster

China has always been prone to natural disasters – one of the perennially worst affected regions of the world. Of the top ten worst natural calamities, six took place in China. Of these the top ranking first three were in China. “The earthquake at Shaanxi in 1556 affected 0.83 million” (Tinti, pp. 124-137). The flood of 1887 in the Yellow River swallowed up “0.9 million or perhaps 2 million” (Tinti, pp. 124-137). In 1931, floods took the lives of nearly 2 million or 4 million. Natural calamities have become a standard feature of China affecting approximately 200 million. These catastrophes are restricting socio-economic development.

The role of the government in combating these natural tragedies gains significance. According to the NORAD report, “The actions of governments and civil society, with support from the international community, have produced compelling evidence to show how appropriate interventions in disaster reduction can lead to a measurable reduction in disaster occurrence and loss” (NORAD, p. 3).

On 26th December 2004, a seismic activity shook the bed of the Indian Ocean that has come to be known as the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. A series of killer tsunamis hit the shores of most of the landmasses skirting the Indian Ocean killing more than 230,000 people as many as fourteen countries. No other natural disaster of such deadly proportions has been ever recorded.

Natural disasters have always been natural to China. Recorded history has noted China being battered by droughts, floods, forest and grassland fires as well as meteorological, seismic as well as geological and maritime curses.

This being a part of Chinese life the rulers have always been alert to it from ancient times. It is woven into the psyche of the rulers and the ruled. It has threatened time and again the national security of China as well as her social stability. It has thrown a challenge to the country’s economic development.

Over the past half a century natural calamities have decreased the harvest of China by about 1% per year. The ambitious Three Gorges Dam, being the world’s biggest hydro-electric project, is expected to alleviate these problems to a large extent. The plan was to divert excess water to arid northern regions but the dam has come under a cloud of controversy and criticism.

Earthquakes too have been plaguing China and for this in 1971 the National Earthquake Administration was set up by the People’s Republic of China” (Tinti 124-137). Its work was to monitor and conduct researches on earthquakes as well as to chalk out a strategy for immediate response to earthquake crisis. In 1998 it was renamed China Earthquake Administration. Each provincial and autonomous municipal government has its own set up for tackling earthquakes under CEA’s directions.

Of the world’s top killer famines, 6 happened in China; of these the deadliest top two were in China. “The Great Chinese Famine (1958-61) killed up to 43 million people – it ranking first. The second worst was in 1907 that took 24 million lives” (Tinti, pp. 124-137).

Since then a specialized agency has been set up by the Chinese Government – The National Disaster Reduction Center or NDRC. It deals with data collection, referrals, disaster management, decision taking, analysis and relief using state of the art technology like satellite-remote-sensing.

Until the latter part of the 1980s China did not impact much on the world economy. But reforms started in 1978 began to produce results leading to investment, development and improvement in living standards. Together with private firms China is now playing a dominant role in International economy. In 1981 the rate of poverty dropped by 53%. In 2005 it was 2.5%. There was marked improvement in infant and maternal mortality rats. There was a 94 times increase in people being able to have access to telephones.

The foreign trade of China has developed faster than the country’s GDP since the last 25 years” (Karwoski and MacDonald 66). The state has made massive investments in infrastructure together with the heavy industries. The private sector has expanded in light industries like exports. The decision taken by the People’s Republic of Chine to allow multinational firms to avail of it as a platform for export has made it a significant competitor with other South Asian countries. Personal income and consumption has been increasing. There has been ten fold jumps in GDP from 1978.

However there are key impediments – with natural disasters being one of them. The energy that is available is insufficient to operate the industrial capacity that has been installed. The transport also is inadequate to move enough quantities such important items like coal. The communication systems too are failing to keep up with demands of a country of such staggering size and complexities.

The most important segments in the economy are “agriculture and industry; agriculture accounts for 70% of the employment and contributes 60% of the GDP” (Tinti, pp. 124-137). But the industrial sector has outpaced agriculture. The latter has been given more attention by the government while the latter has been focused upon by the weather and natural conditions. This has led to a socio-economic and cultural gap between urban and rural regions.

China is the biggest producer of rice as also many industrial and other items like cotton, tungsten etc. Coal and crude oil is among its important products” (Karwoski and MacDonald, p. 65). Perhaps it has the world’s greatest stock of minerals but extraction methods have not been fully developed. “China has constructed state of the art engineering plants capable of producing sophisticated weapons and satellites” (Karwoski and MacDonald, p. 66). But the levels in the ill equipped factories are as yet low. From 2000 there was a change in the market following a spurt in foreign investment.

China has been increasingly integrating with the world economy. China entered the WTO (World Trade Organization) in 2001 that led to more liberalization and deregulation of the economy. The ongoing changes in China are impacting the outside world. Individual initiative has come forth along with entrepreneurship although the state continues to dominate the economy.

In a nutshell when the tsunami broke China was growing at the fastest pace ever but there were challenges – all pervasive corruption in the government, immature banking system, over reliance on exports, intense pollution and widening of income gap. It has led to massive over capacity in the industrial sector.

The paralyzing tsunami in December 2004 led to the biggest international program of reconstruction ever recorded in history. Across the world governments and NGOs joined hands to provide assistance to the battered regions. For the time being politics was set aside while the spirit of altruism dominated. The weapons of war became transformed into tools for peace to save the survivors and deliver help. But despite this, politics was always hovering near the surface.

By responding to the tsunami disaster China got a chance to feed its aspirations by playing a more important role in the adjoining region to be accepted as a leader with peaceful aims for development. Although China had consolidated its position it wanted no suspicions to surround its “peaceful rise”. This was evident as it kept the army – the PLA out of the relief operations. China’s efforts towards the tsunami were made with a view to long term gains in advancing its regional interests (Tinti, pp. 124-137).

In responding to the tsunami China set off its biggest foreign relief program. Flying to Jakarta to participate in the international conference of leaders Premier Wen Jiabao promised more than $60 million in aid to the worst affected regions. China thus changed its status from a receiver of aid (the biggest single recipient of loans given by World Bank) as a developing country to become an important donor.

Within hours of the tsunami crash China organized medical units from People’s Armed Police and elsewhere to head to battered areas bringing along food, generators, tents and medicines. This was followed by sending of cash and other forms of donations. Fundraising at grass root levels started off in full scale.

The Chinese media did not hesitate to show the country’s benevolent and responsible attitude towards the area – this being in tune with its decision to prevent devaluation of RMB in the 1997 financial crisis of Asia.

The efforts made by China to help in the aftermath of the tsunami was in keeping with its intentions to be the leader of the developing world but simultaneously improving its relations with the ASEAN countries. So the aid response was carefully calculated. China nursed hopes that a developing nation that stresses on mutual respect and independence will now not be resented as much as before by the G-7 countries that had made more promises and reached the place faster. The first help to the Somali-government-in-exile came from China. China was the largest donor to Myanmar. Although the amount is miniscule it expects grateful thanks from nations that have been sidelined. But that has not stopped many feeling uncomfortable as the giant emerges.

Perhaps to allay such fears although nearly all the other nations deployed their military might to help the tsunami victims, China did not put the PLA in the forefront of relief activities. The gigantic military response from America left little doubt about its dominating position in this area. “It sent 12,000 soldiers and 21 ships, including an aircraft carrier. In contrast, the ambassador of China in Nigeria handed a cheque worth $100,000 to the President of Somali” (Tinti, pp. 124-137).

The military action from China was largely confined to procurement from the domestic front and flying supplies to the civilian airports of China for delivering the same to civilian aircrafts in Jakarta, Bangkok, Maldives, Male and Colombo. Only one medical team from the People’s Armed Police General Hospital went to Indonesia. Another modest engineering group from a military area of Beijing was also sent to Indonesia to hunt through the devastation. The military units of China collected donations from their officers and the soldiers for contribution to the tsunami fund.

There is another view as to why the People’s Liberation Army was not allowed to play a significant role in the relief effort. Perhaps Beijing faced a quandary over their deployment. Some within the government as well as military must have wanted China to “show the flag” but certain considerations on the practical and political field prevented the dispatching of the troops by the government. Any decision for deploying the troops is actually sensitive so far as the Chinese leadership is concerned. For quite some time China has kept away from being involved in the affairs of other countries. It joined the special committee of the United Nations on peacekeeping only in 1988. They were apprehensive that dispatching of ships and troops would revive worries about the great “China threat” in this region as well as in USA. It would have undone the endeavors of China to sell its “peaceful rise” image. China has security related interests in the Indian Ocean and a military presence, even if for aid purposes might not be the best recourse to follow up such interests (Tinti, pp. 124-137).

Then there were fears that the PLA standing side by side with the armies of developed nations could present a poor contrast. The final quandary for China was that failing to act by it could have been interpreted by other countries for its inability in acting. Thus with these severe constraints, without specific invitation from the affected nations there was no question of the military responding. In general the PLA does not undertake operations outside its own borders. Moreover the process of taking decisions is rather slow – that becomes more pronounced at times of crises. Even in domestic calamities where the army was concerned it took time for decisions to be taken even during the time of the 1998 floods.

China has focused on long term assistance to the nations stricken by tsunami. It will strengthen traditional ties. Material and technical support coming from China would build up a strong infrastructure and bond. The tsunami help is just one segment of the bigger soft battle between USA and China in this region.

Meanwhile the media and academia in China are defending its noticeably small assistance given to the countries battered by the tsunami. They accused the big donors as playing political games while doling out mega sums of money and emergency relief packets. It was noted in The China Economic Times that it was but natural for the jumbo developed nations to donate generously. The West was blamed for vandalizing the environment and indulging in “excessive tourism” that has wrecked the ecological systems of Thailand. The tsunami has further damaged it (Tinti, pp. 124-137). The backlash from China after the western media criticized it for not responding adequately to the crisis. Critics say that China has failed to live up to the image it has created of itself of taking over the mantle of the benign leader of the region.

Others have justified the small role China played during the tsunami relief operations to be in keeping with its status as a developing nation. The generous promises made by the big Western nations could be something that would never be realized.

When the tsunami hit, America sent 130,000 soldiers together with a flotilla composed of warships as well as helicopters to the area. $350 million as promised as aid. Japan dispatched two destroyers together with a ship carrying supplies – something rare for an overseas mission for Japan. “Japan also pledged $500 million. Australia and Norway promised $810 million and $183 million respectively” (Tinti, pp. 124-137).

In contrast China sent about six medical teams – experts dealing with DNA for dealing with corpses in Thailand. Mobile phones were distributed and communication equipments were given by China to Aceh in Sumatra north.

Liu Weidong of American Studies Institute (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) observed, “The area of tsunami devastation in Asia has become a stage where a round of big political chess is being played out. The outpouring of relief aid cannot disguise the naked geopolitical ambitions of big world powers” (Bezlova, p. 1).

Officially China has commented on its response to the tsunami as the biggest overseas humanitarian operation undertaken overseas. Many have said that the response of Beijing has not been in keeping with its ambitions of China to represent itself as the prime regional power. Many have warned that this small involvement could lead to China losing its position with other powers in the region.

Liu Feng together with Liou Qun undertaking research with Fudan University’s China Economic Study Institute said in their writings, “As a developing country, China can’t compare with world powers in donating big sums of money. But it cannot idly sit and watch as the U.S. is launching a new ‘Marshal Plan’ in Asia that can hurt China’s geopolitical interests” (Bezlova, p. 1).

In conclusion it may be said that China has traditionally been against foreign involvement but even then, considering the magnitude of the crisis it put in sizable effort at the diplomatic and public level to take part in helping humanity facing an unprecedented natural disaster. Initially China had promised 2.6 million dollars but at the relief summit held in Indonesia. The Prime Minister of China, “Wen Jiabao pledged 83 million dollars” (Tinti, pp. 124-137). The summit was also attended by the “United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and Colin Powell the Secretary of State of USA” (Tinti, pp. 124-137).

Works Cited

  1. Bezlova, Antoaneta. ‘TSUNAMI IMPACT: China Defends ‘Nominal’ Role in Global Relief Effort’. IPS-Inter Press Service. 2010.
  2. Karwoski, Langer and John MacDonald. Tsunami: the true story of an April Fools’ Day disaster. Boston: Darby Creek Pub., 2006.
  3. NORAD. Strengthening National Capacities for Disaster Reduction and Recovery – the Role of UNDP. UNDP.org. 2010.
  4. Tinti, Stefano. Impact of Tsunami in Three Countries. International Journal of Tourism Research 24.3, (2009): 124-137.

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