Chinese Disaster Relief Operations Identifying Critical Capability Gaps

Article excerpt

The aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake relief efforts has uncovered significant capability gaps in the ability of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to effectively and rapidly respond to major natural disasters. Exposure of these shortcomings provides a unique insight into China's capability to project power using its ground forces in large-scale contingency operations that require expansive logistics, planning, and interservice cooperation. The lack of an integrated relief campaign between the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA hindered the execution of the emergency relief orders issued by President Hu Jintao. This immediate and firm response from the Chinese civilian leadership contrasts with the Chinese military's inefficient execution of the relief efforts. The revelation of these capability gaps pierces through an abundance of literature from Chinese news sources and leaders on the "total success" of relief operations to illuminate deficiencies that could affect Chinese military operations from kinetic to nontraditional to future relief efforts.


The now-famous pictures of Premier have been instrumental in allaying Sichuan residents' fears of government neglect and also conferring international praise on Beijing's communist government. When speaking to Chinese strategists on a recent trip to China, I found that respect and admiration for their government were palpable. It was as if China underwent a major political revolution but not through the barrel of a gun. For President Hu, the earthquake relief efforts have taken China one step closer to becoming a "harmonious society." This has also increased Beijing's standing as a "responsible stakeholder" in the international community. Witness, for example, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong's statement that the "Sichuan earthquake showed how much China has changed and offered a glimpse of its future: a more open and self-confident nation." (1) Hsieng's praises were echoed by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who said that the Chinese leadership's response to the disaster in Sichuan was "nothing short of magnificent." (2)


There is a growing disconnect between these perceptions about prompt decisions from the central government and the PLA's relief efforts in Sichuan Province. Many of these divergences are attributable to the central government's control over information dissemination, which has made analysis of the operations difficult at best. Government-controlled reports in China showcase successful PLA relief campaigns, while Western media reports (though limited in depth) and eyewitness accounts are citing tremendous shortcomings. (3)

Many of the deficits in PLA relief operations are attributed to a poorly integrated command structure, aging equipment, and personnel who are not trained to deal with humanitarian and disaster relief contingencies on the scale of the Sichuan earthquake. As one Chinese expert noted, the relief efforts were the equivalent of responding to a full-scale war. (4) If this is the case, and on a logistical level it seems accurate, there is much to learn from China's disaster relief operations in terms of PLA capabilities and effectiveness in potential contingency operations.

Fundamental to discussions of a militarily ascendant China is Beijing's ability to project power. The earthquake relief efforts have called into question many assumptions about Chinese capabilities. This article identifies shortcomings in the PLA ability to respond to natural disasters, using the earthquake relief operations as a guide. The first part analyzes the effectiveness of China's decisionmaking authority. The second part seeks to determine capability gaps in the PLA's ability to respond to natural disasters while attempting to correlate these gaps with its ability to project power.

Decisionmaking Authority

It is important to differentiate the formal decisionmaking process from the PLA's response to the disaster itself. …


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