Public Diplomacy and Global Communication 2014b

The risks of disaster diplomacy and why China gets it right

On 25 April, the earthquake hit Nepal and while the international community is still in shock about the scope of the catastrophe, some serious disaster diplomacy is going on in the background. Considered as a ‘nontraditional’ tool of diplomacy,

“Disaster diplomacy is concerned with the extent to which disaster-related activities – prevention, mitigation, response and recovery – induce cooperation between enemy parties, internationally or nationally.” (Kelman & Gaillard, 2007)

Nepal Earthquake

Image: Gross, 2015

China immediately sent a 62-member disaster response unit accompanied by 6 search-and-rescue dogs along with 20.5 tons of aid to Nepal (Seemangal, 2015). This way, the country is aiming at strengthening diplomatic ties with Nepal which so far were largely based on economic relations. In 2014, China emerged as Nepal’s biggest investor, while it used its financial strength to exert influence at all political levels in Nepal (ibid.). By employing disaster diplomacy, China is playing out the soft skill card and is thereby portraying itself as the supporter of the oppressed; when in March, the Chinese Foreign Minister held a press conference to announce China’s diplomatic goals for 2015, he was stressing China’s responsibility in promoting “the legitimate rights and interests of development countries” (Tiezzi, 2015), in their position before the UN and in terms of economic development. Nevertheless, despite the effect of soft power diplomacy on intra-state relations, scholars such as Kelman argue that disaster-related activities can catalyse and influence already-existing diplomatic endeavours, but do not tend to yield new diplomatic initiatives (et al., 2009, p.305). Even more, there is always a risk that disaster diplomacy might seriously harm diplomatic relations.

The United States provides two examples where disaster diplomacy failed and even exacerbated diplomatic relations. In case of Iran, the American government tried to send a high-profile emissary with aid supplies to Bam, following the 2003 earthquake disaster; a move that led Iran to refuse, explicitly decoupling the disaster aid from longer-term diplomatic resolution of the two sides’ differences (Kelman, 2011). Similarly, Cuba refused U.S. assistance during a 1998 drought as economic sanctions had already hit the country so hard that Fidel Castro was not willing to accept humanitarian aid from the adversary (ibid.). Consequently, the United States initially did not respond to Cuba’s, Venezuela’s, and Iran’s aid offers following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (ibid.). As, in the event of a disaster, the host country decides which foreign contributions it will accept (Hirono, 2011), there is always a risk that it might expose the other party’s diplomatic efforts and even lead to greater political tensions.

US_AID DIPLOMACYImage: Kelman, 2009, p.310

China, however, famously delivers aid with no strings attached, holding on to its ‘Principle of Independence’ (Government Website, 2007) which goes back to its own long and traumatic experience with foreign interventions. China, to the resentment of America, is in its diplomatic efforts promoting the image of the ‘good’ country as opposed to the US, thereby employing a mix of soft power and economic relations. While the government insists that disaster diplomacy is not a term in Chinese philosophy (Want China Times, 2015), it refuses to oppose its political and ideological values on those countries in need. The fact that most NGOs, among them the Chinese Red Cross are financially fully dependent on the government plays only a minor role for the people on the ground. Eventually, with a political strategy that is more inward- than outward centered, China’s public diplomacy is outweighed by domestic public opinion. The fact that China and the Philippines have been in diplomatic deadlock over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, is considered a key factor that held Beijing back from offering more help to Manila in 2013, mainly in consideration of domestic public opinion (Kwok, 2013). While China might not automatically win hearts and minds, its winning strategy is a long long-term approach, based on keeping a low profile in combination with powerful tools such as disaster diplomacy.


Government Website (2007) ‘Adhere to the Principle of Independence’, ‘About China’ [online] Available at: [accessed 04/05/2015]

Gross, K. (2015) ‘International Community rallies to contribute Nepal relief aid’, The DePaulia [online] Available at: [accesed 05/05/2015]

Hirono, M. (2011) ‘The Limits of Disaster Diplomacy’, The Diplomat [online] Available at: [accessed 04/05/2015]

Kelman, I. and Gaillard, J. (2007) ‘Disaster diplomacy in Aceh’, Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, Issue 37 [online] Available at: [accessed 04/05/2015]

Kelman, I., Gaillard, J. and Orillos, F. (2009) ‘US-Philippines Military Relations After the Mt Pinatubo Eruption in 1991: A Disaster Diplomacy Perspective’, European Journal of East Asian Studies, Volume 8 Issue 2, via Hague Journal of Diplomacy [online] Available via: [accessed 04/05/2015]

Kelman, I. (2011) ‘Aid as outreach: Disaster Relief and Public Diplomacy’, World Politics Review [online] Available at: [accessed 04/05/2015]

Kwok, K. (2013) ‘Disaster Diplomacy at play in Haiyan aid response by China, United States’, South China Morning Post [online] Available at: [accessed 04/05/2015]

Seemangal, R. (2015) ‘Disaster Diplomacy: After Nepal Earthquake, China and India Race to Give Aid’, The Observer [online] Available at: [accessed 04/05/2015]

Tiezzi, S. (2015) ‘What to expect from Chinese Diplomacy in 2015’, The Diplomat [online] Available at: [accessed 04/05/2015]

Want China Times (2015), ‘Global Times denies China engages in disaster diplomacy’ [online] Available at: [accessed 04/05/2015]



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3 thoughts on “The risks of disaster diplomacy and why China gets it right

  1. aluur on said:

    Very interesting post.
    I think it was a good choise to choose China as a case study. It was very informative.


  2. Great entry, reading with ease and interest!

    Thanks for bringing in this facet of public diplomacy I haven’t thought of before to be honest!

    Nonetheless, I agree China’s public diplomacy is a sophisticated one, unlike more direct and let’s say agressive Western tradition, building on its values, China proves to be an alternative to the West in many ways. For instance, this massive economic (as usual in case of China) investment has become one of my interest (one wonders if after building much needed infrastructure they will move on deeper cooperation)


  3. And yet again, even in this case one can identify somewhat different non-invasive approach China chooses to conquer new markets.


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