BRI Notebook: The Chinese aid system’s response to the Turkey and Syria earthquakes

Editor’s Note: The BRI Notebook section is created to offer more timely content on developments that may be of interest to our readers. In this issue of the BRI Notebook, we look at China’s recent response to the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, and what it says about “great power responsibility” in its foreign aid program.

Maintaining its record of fast responses to natural disasters in ally countries, China was quick to respond to the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria last month, announcing the shipment of aid and emergency supplies in various forms as early as one day after the initial earthquake struck. Coordinated by the (relatively) new China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), China’s aid agency under the State Council, the “immediate activation of the emergency humanitarian aid mechanism”, as one think tank described it, gives an indication of the growing capabilities and complexities of China’s international aid system. Of particular note, the response involved a network of both government and non-government actors. An op-ed published on 19 Feb also indicates how Chinese aid responses to natural disasters are being written into the narrative of China as a rising “responsible power”, stepping up to global challenges as well as stepping in where Western powers are retreating.

In February, the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation (CAITEC), a research body under the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM), published a series of articles which usefully compiled CIDCA, the Ministry of Emergency Management (MEM) and Chinese non-governmental responses to the disaster. Alongside these organized provisions, local Chinese communities in the affected areas were reportedly involved in collecting funds for tents, sleeping bags and blankets, with the first batch arriving with Turkish government bodies by 7 Feb.

CIDCA7 Feb: RMB 40 million worth of emergency supplies and services), including an emergency rescue team, medical team and search and disaster relief supplies, from CIDCA for Turkey. RMB 30 million worth of emergency supplies for Syria, including USD 2 million in aid supplies and the acceleration of grain aid projects, including wheat and barley.

15 Feb: 80 ton batch of humanitarian aid supplies from the Chinese govt arrived in Syria, including 30,000 first aid kits, 10,000 coats, 300 tents, 20,000 blankets and various medical supplies
MEM8 Feb: Sent 82 personnel, comprising fire rescue services, earthquake search and rescue teams and emergency medical teams. They brought with them 20 tons of search and rescue, communications and medical equipment and four rescue dogs. The teams returned to China on Feb 16
China Red Cross7 Feb: USD200,000 worth of humanitarian emergency aid sent from the China Red Cross to the Syrian and Turkish Red Crescent societies sent on 7 Feb. 

9 Feb: Sent medical supplies for 5000 people to Syria. Second batch sent on 13 Feb.

13 Feb: Second batch of humanitarian emergency aid sent to Syrian and Turkish Red Crescent societies, comprising tents, warm clothing, household relief packages and medicines.
Blue Swan7 Feb: Sent 60 personnel and two rescue dogs. 
10-12 Feb: Sent a second batch of 108 personnel
Ram Union7 Feb: Sent eight rescue personnel
Shenzhen Rescue Volunteers Association9 Feb: Sent 20 people to Turkey
China Foundation for Rural Development9 Feb: Send small team to Turkey on 9 Feb
15 Feb: Sent 60 waterproof tarps, 1000 bags of rice, 1000 barrels of cooking oil and 1000 sanitary kits to Turkey, 15 Feb
Sany Foundation?? : Sent two collapsed building rescue experts to Turkey
Peaceland10 Feb: Sent one rescue teams to Turkey and one to Syria

Together through trials and tribulations

While the disaster relief personnel and supplies were being dispatched, Chinese government spokespeople portrayed the response as demonstrative of China as a supporter of the multilateral order and a leader in emergency responses. At a press conference on 13 Feb, deputy bureau chief of CIDCA’s Region One Bureau (which covers Asia, Eurasia, Central and Eastern Europe and North Africa), Zheng Yuandong said, “When one is in difficulty, all offer support. Together with the global community, China proactively supports and helps the Turkish and Syrian people to victory against disaster.”

The tone is aligned with much of the official rhetoric we have seen on China’s global engagement, including in the Belt and Road Initiative, the Global Development Initiative and China’s responses to other global emergencies, such as the pandemic. China is described as a proactive supporter of multilateral global governance in the context of an ever more risk-prone and dangerous world. It is also portrayed as a leading provider of public goods. These talking points also align with a concerted effort to add a “moral orientation” to China’s overseas aid, which, after the dominance of ideological and geopolitical motives from the 1950s to 1970s, has since the 1980s been driven by a technocratic and commercially-oriented outlook on development. As Stella Hong Zhang has written for us, this goal of finding and promoting a moral doctrine for Chinese aid features prominently in China’s 2021 White Paper on China’s International Development Cooperation in the New Era, CIDCA’s work plan for the coming years.

A Chinese rescue team help with searching efforts in Antakya. Image: screenshot from documentary by The Paper

In a Feb 19 opinion piece in Guangming Daily, assistant research fellow at CAITEC, Yao Shuai, stated that China’s emergency aid to Turkey and Syria displayed “great power responsibility” (大国担当). In other words, that China is stepping up to the global governance responsibilities which come with its position as one of the world’s most powerful countries. This interpretation was echoed across a number of state media outlets. Yao put China’s response to the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria into the historical context of Chinese aid assistance, which she says began in the 1950s and has over 70 years of history responding to natural disasters, refugee crises, pandemics and food supply crises. Yao notes an increase in aid in the ten years since the 18th Party Congress in 2012, including in response to floods in Mozambique and Pakistan, the 2015 Nepal earthquake and the global response to the pandemic, which she calls the “lengthiest and largest humanitarian aid initiative” since the founding of the PRC. She frames these responses to international emergencies as the “provision of public goods for global sustainable development.”

Yao’s op-ed goes further than just praising China’s past and present humanitarian aid. She also, in what is increasingly standard for any commentary on China’s international role, points the finger at Western aid’s “increasing feebleness”, the implication being that China is stepping up to shoulder the burden. She cites China’s South-South cooperation initiatives and the provision of funding for multilateral institutions as evidence for China’s taking on responsibilities and criticizes Western governments for spending more of their aid budgets on refugee crises within their borders and for using aid for political ends.

Natural disasters and China’s aid blueprint

Chapter 5 of China’s 2021 White Paper on international development cooperation, the first white paper released on the country’s approach to aid since 2014, is dedicated to responses to global humanitarian challenges. It frames the issue: “Public health risks, natural disasters, migrant and refugee crises, and many other humanitarian issues represent an ever greater threat to the whole world today.”

Numerous Chinese rescue teams operating in Antakya, Turkey after the earthquake. Image: screenshot from documentary by The Paper

The chapter lists six focus areas for China’s aid department, three of which are directly related to natural disasters and emergencies: 

  • Providing Emergency Disaster Relief
  • Assisting Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction
  • Improving Disaster Preparation and Mitigation

Expect, then, to see more proactive initiatives and coordination from China’s departments of aid and emergency management in response to natural disasters overseas. On 15 Feb, MEM in fact held its first coordinators meeting for the “Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and Emergency Management”, an indication of a desire to formalize and institutionalize China’s emerging role as a major contributor to international disaster response.

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