An extremely rare moment of US-China military to military cooperation? Ironically it's in the area of emergency response and disaster relief at a moment when both sides are marching towards increasingly unpredictable encounters in the South China Sea, which could at any moment result in a catastrophe in its own right.
At a moment when U.S. officials are urging China to halt militarization of the South China Sea, Reuters reports this unusual tiny bright spot in Washington-Beijing relations:
Soldiers from China and the United States wrapped up a week of joint disaster relief drills on Saturday, in a display of cooperation against a backdrop of worsening ties between the two countries over trade, the disputed South China Sea and self-ruled Taiwan.
This comes as tensions are soaring between the world's two largest economies and ahead of President Trump's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Argentina starting November 30th.
The exercise was held in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing, where Chinese and American soldiers simulated natural disaster response and relief. Drills included practice rescuing people from earthquake-destroyed buildings and treating survivors’ injuries at a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military hospital.
Military officials on both sides see the drills as crucial in building the kind of mutual understanding and respect that could avoid the type of unintended military action that could be the spark that leads to war, such as recent Chinese military intercepts of American and Western vessels in the South China Sea.
One top Chinese commander, Qin Weijiang, deputy commander of the PLA’s eastern theater command, told reporters:
Only through more contacts, more exchanges and cooperation in areas of common interest can we effectively increase mutual trust and effectively reduce misjudgments.
So I think bilateral exchanges can start from humanitarian and disaster relief exchanges and expand to other areas of common interest.
And the US side issued similarly rare amicable statements. Robert Brown, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Pacific, called the exchange “extremely important” and described: “Just as our top leaders work towards building a strong working relationship and understanding, we through confidence-building measures like this DME [Disaster Management Exchange] must also at our level build a strong understanding of each other,” according to Reuters.
Such disaster relief exchanges have been held on an annual basis, with this year's being the 14th time US and Chinese troops teamed up for the joint training. Last year the event took place in the United States; however, relations are currently their lowest level. But China's defense ministry issued a statement expressing hope that such rare military cooperation can become a "stabilizer" for overall ties with Washington.
Michael Chase, a specialist in China and Asia-Pacific security at the RAND Corp, was quoted by Reuters as saying, “These exchanges remain important in that respect even if they aren’t going to solve broader problems in the relationship.”
Meanwhile on the same day the rare, cooperative drills were wrapping up, Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Papua New Guinea with US Vice President in attendance. The two leaders traded barbs in their speeches, with the Chinese president saying in response to White House accusations of Beijing using debt-trap diplomacy:
No-one has the power to stop people from seeking a better life. We should strengthen development cooperation.
And the Chinese president warned further against ramping up the trade war as well as potential military escalation, saying, "hot, cold or trade [war]" could spell catastrophe. "Mankind has once against reached a crossroad," he said. "Which direction should we choose? Cooperation or confrontation, openness or closing one's door?"
It will be interesting to see if the US-Chinese humanitarian response drills will still occurring next year, or if relations hit rock bottom by then.