A hospital ship belonging to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy docked in Sihanoukville on Tuesday, ostensibly on a mission to provide goodwill and free medical service to Chinese nationals and Cambodians alike.
Sihanoukville Autonomous Port marks the final stop on a four-month mission for the “Peace Ark,” which also stopped in Brunei, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma, the Maldives and Indonesia, and spent time in the Gulf of Aden, between Yemen and Somalia, where the Chinese navy has an anti-piracy task force.
“We have many friends in the region and we use this mission to strengthen our friendships at sea,” said Yang Tian Yue, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Cambodia.
Sam Chanmala, a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces medical staff representative in Sihanoukville, said that medics from the Peace Ark would be dispatched to schools in the area.
“This visit is to strengthen ties [between Cambodia and China,]” he said.
“They are here until the 28th, so we will send a mobile group to treat and educate children in schools.”
The Peace Ark is 178 meters long and has 102 medical crew on board who can treat up to 500 patients a day.
The route taken by the Peace Ark closely resembles the position of China’s so-called “String of Pearls,” a network of ports in friendly countries stretching from mainland China to the Persian Gulf that some analysts say China has fostered to embolden its economic and military power in the Indian Ocean.
A report published by the Indian Defense Ministry in April warns of the “grave threat” posed by the increasing presence of the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean and claims China is aiming to gain control of “highly sensitive sea lines of communication” there.
Mr. Yang said the Peace Ark mission had nothing to do with China flexing its military muscle or touching base along the String of Pearls.
“I don’t think there is a so-called String of Pearls,” he said. “I don’t think this exists.”
“This is a very simple mission aimed at providing medical assistance to Chinese citizens abroad and the local people.”
During the mission, the Peace Ark also traveled near the disputed Spratley Islands in the South China Sea, which are claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.