chapter  5
17 Pages

The military and disaster relief in China: trends, drivers and implications


Armed forces around the world play an increasingly important role in disasterrelief operations and constitute an integral part of their nation’s disastermanagement capacity. In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the role of the military in domestic disaster response is particularly prominent. Since 1949, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA)1 has been the central force in the nation’s responses to natural disasters. Indeed the frequency, scale and types of the domestic disaster-relief works that the PLA has conducted have seldom been matched by military forces elsewhere. More significantly, despite China’s military modernization over the past three decades focusing on strengthening the PLA’s capabilities for fighting conventional wars, disaster-relief operations remain an important task for the military. In recent years, this type of operation has been further elevated as a primary mission for the PLA. This chapter seeks to provide a critical assessment of the prominent role of the Chinese military in domestic emergency rescue and relief operations and the implications for China’s national disaster management system. Specifically, the chapter addresses three interrelated questions. First, what are the key drivers of the PLA’s extensive involvement in disaster-relief works? Second, how are the military’s roles and responsibilities in relief operations defined in China? And third, what are the impacts of the extensive military involvement in domestic disaster relief on China’s evolving national emergency management system and for the military itself? The chapter argues that despite the PLA’s long history of involvement in domestic disaster responses, the nature and key drivers of such operations have decidedly changed in recent years. Whereas in the past, participation in disasterrelief operations was considered essentially a political task that the PLA was expected to fulfil as a ‘People’s Army’ in addition to their professional military duties, in recent years such deployments have been increasingly conducted under the rubric of ‘Military Operations Other Than War’ (MOOTW) (fei zhanzheng junshi xingdong) and considered an integral part of the ‘the diversified military tasks’ (duoyanghua junshi renwu) that the PLA is required to perform.2 The underlying cause of the change is a growing perception among Chinese leaders and the PLA that natural disasters are a non-traditional security threat needing to be dealt with by military forces. The ‘securitization’ of natural disasters thus

perpetuates a central role for the PLA in China’s emergency management system at a time when the military is increasingly disengaging itself from many other non-military affairs.3 The changing nature of the PLA’s relief works also leads to the development of new legal and institutional frameworks defining the role and responsibilities of the military in supporting disaster responses. Accordingly, significant adjustments have been made to the PLA’s training regime, force structure and operational procedures to develop specialized military disasterrelief capabilities. The findings of this chapter, however, also demonstrate that the extensive use of the PLA in domestic disaster mitigation has been a doubleedged sword. Despite the vital role that the PLA has played in relief operations, over-reliance on the military could potentially be detrimental to the development of an effective civilian-based national disaster management system. The chapter has five sections. The first section briefly reviews the current debate about the use of the military in domestic responses to natural disasters. The second section provides an overview of the PLA’s extensive involvement in internal disaster-relief activities. The third section discusses the shifting drivers and changing nature of the PLA’s disaster-relief operations. This is followed by a discussion of the emerging legal and institutional frameworks that define and regulate the PLA’s relief missions. The fifth section uses the PLA’s response to the devastating 2008 Wenchuan earthquake as a case study to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the PLA’s disaster-relief capabilities and the implications for China’s national emergency management system.