Rescue missions seem to be emerging as the new element of soft power within international relations.

Now that the world has come out from the grips of Thailand cave rescue mission, which had ended, fortunately, saving miraculously all twelve children and coach, stranded deep within underground caves for more than 17 days, it’s time to move on and delve upon the emergence of rescue missions as new elements of soft power within international relations. 

During this 17 days ordeal, which seem to have affected millions of people all around the world, who kept glued to their television screens or smartphones continuously to be regularly updated about the fate of boys and their coach, stranded deep within the Tham Luang cave system, significant attention was also on the complex rescue mission assembled together from local and international expertise.

For it was the merit and unwavering commitment of these people leading and executing, what could inarguably be one of the most daunting and complex rescue missions of recent times, that we had such a different outcome of the 17-day ordeal. (The death of a former Thai naval seal Saman Kunan, was the only casualty of the week-long complex rescue mission.)

The images of boys being finally located by two British cave divers almost ten days after first reported missing generated huge emotions and goodwill all around the world.

Since then the news of rescue mission being led by renowned international experts such as divers from Great Britain, specialist doctor-diver from Australia, along with US Navy seals, and experts from countries like Japan and China, Finland, Denmark, assisting in the mission in different capacities, had captivated imaginations of people all around the world.

However, for experts of international relations, these images might have slightly deeper implications, as it demonstrates the significance of rescue missions as an element of soft power in international politics.

Soft power in international relations is defined as the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion.

Ever since Joseph Nye coined the word soft power in the late 1980s, it has gradually crept into state’s foreign policy within the realm of international relations, with different states demonstrating varying levels of propensity to shore-up their soft power repertoire. 

While scholars of international relations tend to define state’s soft power as its overall attractiveness due to its culture, political values and foreign policies in general, it would not be an exception to argue that soft power is the manifestation of a state’s overall goodwill generated through the above or any other means.

For states cannot persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion without banking on its overall goodwill.

It is this goodwill, which essentially translates into some kind of ability for nation-states to influence other actors in international relations and defined as soft power.

In this regard it is important to note that international rescue missions almost inadvertently generate goodwill.

The goodwill is generated through the basic human spirit of collective action in reaching and helping out, and making sacrifices for people, who sometimes are completely unrelated by ordinary ties like ethnicity, nationality or political and cultural proximity, but instead, are united by an extraordinary bond of humanity.

While international rescue missions come in all scales, sizes and complexities, requiring a varying level of expertise and capabilities, some missions generate more emotions than others.

As a rule more gripping and dangerous the crisis is, and provided more ease of reporting by international media is available, the greater is the goodwill.

Indeed this was the case with the latest Thailand cave rescue mission.

The transactional goodwill generated during any such crisis resulting in complex international rescue missions potentially can develop into more relational, and long lasting people to people, and government to government goodwill.

This can potentially translate into a more favourable decision-making from other states, as and when a situation arises, within international politics.

Thereby, shoring-up state’s overall soft power!

It is probably for this reason that some states more than others in international relations are consciously indulging in developing capabilities to assist and lead in complex rescue missions abroad, sometimes in areas far and away from what essentially can be considered as their own backyard.

It is important to understand that some states have inbuilt capabilities, or have developed capabilities over a period of time that suits to a crisis-on-hand,  which they generously offer to other states at the time of crisis, out of generosity, goodwill, or/and as sheer respect for the human life.

In the recent Thai cave rescue mission, the states like Great Britain, Australia, and the United States would fall into this category, which had either specific advanced diving capabilities to come to the rescue in the crisis or advanced military capabilities to assist in such complex missions.

This category of states would also include countries like India, which have developed significant military capabilities to launch large-scale rescue and evacuations, although majorly for its own citizenry and diaspora, where it can also come to rescue to foreigners caught in the crisis situation – a gesture that mostly all civilized states extend to each other in modern international society.

However, some states are shoring-up their capabilities to be able to contribute positively during any international crisis, far and beyond their natural area of interest, seemingly driven more by an interest of accentuating their soft power within international relations. 

China is one such country which has in the recent past shored-up its capabilities and demonstrated an exceptional interest in rescue missions abroad, even where its citizens or diaspora are not involved directly in the crisis.

China had established a dedicated Chinese International Search and Rescue Team (CISAR) in April 2001, with a mandate to carry out rescue missions in foreign soil.

Since 2001, CISAR had contributed in rescue missions in places as distant as Haiti, Algeria, and Christchurch earthquake (2011), to places more nearer and within its immediate area of interest like Indonesia, Pakistan, Nepal, Iran and Japan.

While there is nothing conspicuous about pursuing rescue missions as a state policy, as it eventually saves human lives in distress.

However, there is no denying from the fact that states are increasingly seeing an international crisis as an opportunity to generate international goodwill for them, and are increasingly augmenting their capabilities to be able to deliver, as and when the opportunity presents.