By Shi Guang, Tan Xingyu
“On December 26, 2004, the tidal waves of a powerful tsunami swept away towns and villages on the coast of the Indian Ocean for thousands of miles,” recalled Pan Guangxue, a senior former Chinese diplomat to ASEAN member states, in an interview with China Report ASEAN on a mid-summer afternoon in Beijing.
“The disaster caused huge casualties and property losses to the coastal regions of Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and other countries,” Pan said. “This kind of major disaster posed a huge challenge to our embassy. That night, I headed straight to Phuket Island.”
As reflected in his demeanor in interviews, Pan has stayed cool and calm throughout his career, even when facing perilous situations like natural disasters.
Test of Tsunami
In 2003, Pan was appointed minister-counselor of the Chinese Embassy in Thailand, an important ASEAN member state and a key friend to China. The Chinese embassy there was fully occupied. Pan’s many years’ experience as a diplomat gave him a professional temperament and a strong sense of organization, and Thailand’s longstanding friendship with China left him many memories he holds dear.
“The 2004 tsunami was so sudden that the routines at our embassy were disrupted,” Pan recalled. It was also the very first time that he had encountered a severe natural disaster. The harrowing experience has stuck with him.
The Chinese government responded promptly, offering a helping hand to the disaster-hit countries. The Chinese Embassy in Thailand immediately started the emergency response mechanism to take part in the disaster relief operation, including the search and rescue of Chinese citizens. China provided Thailand with free DNA testing and comparison of victims, which proved a great help to relief efforts.
Phuket Island is a well-known tourist resort in Thailand, and as the tsunami struck, it was enjoying its peak season. Many Chinese tourists were on the island, in urgent need of assistance. Pan led a five-person task force to travel to the island overnight, cooperating with the Thai authorities in the search and rescue of the Chinese citizens in danger.
The suddenness of the disaster threw Phuket Island into chaos. Pan and his task force searched for Chinese citizens and offered them any assistance they could.
At that time, Pan was tasked by the embassy to search for a prominent Hong Kong figure who was on holiday on the island when the disaster struck. Pan was puzzled. How could he possibly locate an individual from the vast crowd in such a chaos with communications broken down? He was informed that the Hong Kong tourist had traveled to the island with a tour group. Pan assumed that he should be together with his group, which was very likely to be seeking refuge in one of the temporary shelter areas that had been set up by Thai authorities. Pan decided to comb hospitals and hotels that were serving as temporary shelters.
With the help of Thai authorities, Pan and his task force searched two temporary shelters, but to no avail. At 3:00 a.m. on the morning of December 27, they arrived at the cinema of the Phuket Central Chopping Mall. A large number of people had sought refuge there. Pan decided to divide the cinema into grids, with each team member searching a certain grid. When they searched the third grid, Pan found the man from Hong Kong. When Pan explained to him what was going on, he was pleasantly surprised. He hadn’t expected the embassy to be so efficient in finding him shortly after the disaster. He was deeply moved. Years later, the man from Hong Kong wrote an account of this experience in his memoir, speaking highly of the search and rescue operation conducted by the embassy.
“There were several factors that contributed to our success,” Pan said. “The first factor was the task team’s hard work. Support and cooperation of Thai authorities also played a big part. Of course, there was also a bit of good luck. Sino-Thai friendship has been tested in disasters,” Pan said.
China also took an active role in reconstruction after the disaster. Within a short period of time, China constructed high-quality makeshift houses in the disaster-hit regions, which was viewed by the Thai government as an extremely valuable contribution.
Blood Is Thicker Than Water
In the 1970s, Pan served as a diplomat at the Chinese Embassy in Laos. Afterward, he remained engaged in China’s diplomacy toward Southeast Asia for decades. In 2006, he assumed the role of Chinese Ambassador to Laos, before taking over as Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia in 2010. His decades of experience in Southeast Asia give him remarkable familiarity with Southeast Asian countries. In his view, China and ASEAN are intertwined by language and culture. At Angkor Wat, a 12th-Century World Cultural Heritage site in Cambodia, Chinese elements have been discovered, a testament to the longstanding friendly exchanges between China and the Indochina Peninsula. In modern history, China has supported Cambodia in its pursuit for national independence and liberation. There’s a solid foundation for the development of China-Cambodia friendship, with the support of former King Norodom Sihanouk, Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian public.
The success of the past 25 years of China-ASEAN relations is proof that there are no difficulties that cannot be conquered.
“During my tenure in Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen spoke to me on several occasions that Cambodia has chosen China as a friend, and Hun Sen himself has chosen to be a friend of the Chinese leaders,” Pan said. “Those are decisions based on observations of the long-term exchanges between China and Cambodia, and China’s unwavering support for King Sihanouk. The Cambodian people realize that China is a trustworthy partner, and are confident in their friendly exchanges with China. We should do everything we can to carry on this traditional friendship from generation to generation.”
In Laos, there are three cemeteries dedicated to Chinese martyrs who lost their lives assisting the Lao people’s fight against American invasion. In the cemetery in Xieng Khouang Province in northeast Laos lie five Chinese diplomats who were killed in bombings by US warplanes. The Chinese Embassy makes arrangement to sweep their tombs every year. That fully demonstrates that Sino-Lao friendship has been tested by war, and blood is thicker than water.
Over the past 25 years of China-ASEAN dialogue relations, bilateral relations have made tremendous progress, with many difficulties and obstacles overcome, according to Pan. It is essential for both sides to make unremitting efforts to overcome difficulties, enhance consensus and promote cooperation. Pan said that the success of the past 25 years of China-ASEAN relations is proof that there are no difficulties that cannot be conquered. In the future, China and ASEAN should have the wisdom and the courage to open up a new era in history with faster and better development of relations.
“I’m full of confidence that this will happen,” Pan said.