For more than 20 years, the United States has been seeking ways to expand bilateral cooperation with China to help improve U.S.-Chinese relations. One of the most frustrating efforts has been in the United States’ attempts to build ties between the two countries’ military establishments. Since 1994, when then-Secretary of Defense William J. Perry proposed regular military-to-military exchanges, the Chinese have alternatively embraced such cooperation and later suspended it abruptly, usually to show their anger over U.S. actions such as continued American arms sales to Taiwan.
While the United States has succeeded in building ties with China in a number of areas—diplomacy and economic policies, for example—it has yet to achieve a real breakthrough in military-to-military relations. Admiral Robert F. Willard, then-commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2012 that while his combatant command had been able to foster some military cooperation with the People’s Republic of China, the relationship “lag[s] well behind [that of] other U.S.-China engagements.”1 Yet, enhancing understanding between the two militaries remains an important goal, particularly in view of the intensifying geopolitical strains that have accompanied China’s growth in Asia.
One proposal that offers real potential is for the two countries to create a framework for using their military forces to conduct joint humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HA/DR) missions. Such a combined U.S.-Chinese HA/DR effort not only would heighten understanding between the two militaries and promote stable military-to-military relations, but it also could advance both countries’ interests and increase global ability to respond to disasters in the Pacific. Since military-to-military contact can be an important element in improving overall relations between countries, the HA/DR effort could help bolster broader U.S.-Chinese ties.
A Modest Start
The seeds already have been planted. Since 1998, U.S. and Chinese forces have held eight tabletop exercises to discuss HA/DR, the most recent of which concluded in a two-day conference last November in Chengdu, China.2 At the Chengdu session, representatives of U.S. and Chinese military forces sat together and discussed a possible response to a notional earthquake. Major General Stephen Lyons, commander of the U.S. Army’s 8th Theater Sustainment Command, noted: “That spirit of cooperation and that level of transparency . . . helps [send] signals throughout the region, and it helps us understand each other.”3
The concept is important. Military-to-military relationships can increase understanding between nations, and the United States and Peoples Republic of China (PRC) would benefit from such ties. The U.S. military already maintains vibrant relationships with many Pacific militaries, including the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Royal Thai military, and Singapore Armed Forces, to name a few. But the U.S. military has had precious few interactions with the largest force in the Pacific, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and, if anything, the relationship has been erratic—and sometimes conflicting. As noted, China severed military relations with the United States entirely in the wake of a 2010 U.S. arms-sales deal with Taiwan.4 The PLA was not even invited to the 22-nation biennial Rim of the Pacific Exercise last July. The following September, a Chinese naval vessel made a port call at Honolulu. Inevitably, this sort of on-again, off-again relationship invites misunderstandings.
More recently, however, there have been signs of a possible thaw. When senior officers of several Pacific navies discussed the prospect of closer ties at the Western Pacific Naval Conference in Kuala Lumpur last September, both U.S. Navy Admiral Cecil Haney, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and Chinese Vice Admiral Ding Yi Ping, deputy navy chief of the People’s Liberation Army, attended. Ding’s presence, which came despite tensions between China, Japan, and Taiwan, as well as the ASEAN nations, emphasized China’s desire to cooperate on the world stage. It may be a harbinger of positive developments to come.5
Another reason HA/DR presents such a good opportunity for the United States to forge stronger ties with the PRC: Chinese military leaders are well aware of the political price that the country pays for not contributing to HA/DR efforts. The PRC provided no assistance in response to the December 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, which killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced countless others. China was excoriated in the international press for its parsimony and unwillingness to help. It is a lesson that the PRC leadership will not soon forget.
Ring of Fire
The borders of the Pacific Ocean are known as the ‘Ring of Fire,’ and for good reason. Natural disasters occur frequently in the region, and a strong China with a strong HA/DR capability could literally mean the difference between life and death for people in some of the smaller countries that may not have such resources. China has been practicing this on a global level recently. One sign that it recognizes the importance of HA/DR is its commissioning of its newest hospital ship, the Peace Ark. The vessel is 580 feet long, can carry more than 480 personnel, and is the largest of its kind. It contains up-to-date medical facilities, and has already deployed to areas such as the Caribbean and Africa, where it conducted humanitarian assistance missions.6 The benefits of employing such a vessel in conjunction with two United States Military Sealift Command hospital ships, the USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH-20), become apparent in the light of disasters such as the 2004 tsunami or the 2009 Japanese earthquake.
Fortuitously, the Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) carrier strike group was in an ideal position to respond to the 2004 tsunami, and forward-deployed U.S. forces were able to quickly react to the 2009 earthquake. But what if our forces had been already committed and unable to reach a disaster area? Having a quick-response humanitarian capability within the PRC military would be a powerful force-multiplier for HA/DR in the Pacific region. To reach that ideal will take time. Initially, U.S. influence may be required as the primary catalyst for such a response, and U.S. coordination and cooperation with its Pacific allies would be an essential stabilizing factor if China were to be the first-responder during a humanitarian crisis. The preservation of life in the hours and days following a disaster should be the driving factor for a humanitarian response; to the person whose home was decimated and needs medical care quickly, it makes no difference whether the doctors are Chinese, American, or otherwise.
U.S.-Chinese HA/DR ties also would increase China’s ability to respond to natural disasters at home. An earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2010 dramatically revealed the gaps in the Chinese military’s disaster-response capability. The assets China had available to distribute the aid were old, the country’s industrial base was incapable of surmounting such challenges, and poor training hampered its response.7 While the government’s reaction in 2010 was better than it had been when the last major earthquake struck in 1976, its military capabilities still left much to be desired. On a national level, training with the United States could also serve as a valuable example of civilian-military relations for China. During the Sichuan earthquake, for instance, when commanders on the ground had already determined that mountainous terrain and demolished roads made a rapid response impossible, the Chinese leadership unrealistically ordered forces to the scene of the disaster within 34 hours of the event.8 China could benefit from the lessons it would learn from military-to-military and national-level coordination during an HA/DR exercise with the United States.
What Skeptics Will Say
To be sure, the joint HA/DR concept outlined above is certain to have its skeptics. Critics will assert that having U.S. forces rigorously exercising with their PRC counterparts and encouraging closer relations will embolden the Chinese government. They will argue that the imprimatur of the international community provides legitimacy, and that having it would condone PRC actions and behavior that are well outside international norms and encourage further aggression. Indeed, there are plenty of examples of this kind of behavior, among them the forced landing of a U.S. EP-3E Aries aircraft on Hainan Island following a mid-air collision with a Chinese F-8 (in which the EP-3E was “thumped” by the interceptor), and the harassment of USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23) in March of 2009. PRC coast guard vessels also routinely harass Vietnamese fishing vessels near the Paracel Islands, and a recent dust-up saw PRC forces go toe-to-toe with Filipino fishing vessels in a territory dispute over the Scarborough Shoal. China’s Hainan Province has also announced that as of 1 January 2013, it will enforce its claimed territorial rights over almost all of the South China Sea.9 These events highlight that the PRC government’s foreign policy capability may not be well-developed because of its insular nature. This certainly does not excuse such behavior; it suggests that, even though it is an economic juggernaut, China has not yet coordinated its foreign policy between the government and military, and there is room to grow.
Yet, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China necessarily has an interest in maintaining its standing as a member of a peaceful international order. Executing an HA/DR mission in conjunction with the United States would be a powerful symbol of its government’s determination to do so.
Missions such as humanitarian assistance and disaster response would allow the Chinese government to exercise coordination between its government and military forces in a non-confrontational international environment, and thus develop ties similar to those that the United States government enjoys with its military. Far from encouraging aggressive behavior, HA/DR would provide China an opportunity to better develop and become a more fully functioning member of the international community.
A joint HA/DR mission between the United States and China would have a profound global impact; it would promote stable military-to-military relations, increase the cooperative ties between the two nations, and advance both United States and Chinese interests with the significant effect of increasing global ability to respond to disasters in the Pacific. This avenue should be pursued between the two militaries in a series of increasingly complex exercises, developing capabilities that would only be needed in the event of a natural disaster.
What to Do Next
The United States must pursue cooperation with the People’s Republic of China to conduct HA/DR. The following steps should be implemented immediately:
• Call a high-level military conference among the chiefs of the U.S. and Chinese militaries to discuss HA/DR. The agenda should include an information exchange, where both nations discuss HA/DR planning and organization, logistics, and best practices. The two sides should also pledge mutual support in the event of a disaster in the region. At the same time, the United States must effectively reassure its allies in the Pacific, who may be concerned that the U.S. will grow closer to China at the expense of their relationships with the United States.
• Schedule bi-annual military exercises of increasing complexity. These exercises should begin with activities such as capability demonstrations, formation steaming, and port visits to both China and the United States. Regular exchanges are critical to building a rapport, and will also help alleviate gaps in PRC HA/DR response, as previously noted. Later on, these exercises should include other militaries in the Pacific Rim.
• Apart from regular exercises, both Chinese military and non-governmental organizations should be invited to participate in the United States Seventh Fleet’s annual humanitarian mission, Pacific Partnership. This recurring mission would provide opportunities throughout the region for Americans and Chinese to work closely on a peacetime mission.
• When an actual disaster occurs, China should be asked to deploy the Peace Ark. The PRC has a responsibility to respond to a “local” disaster. Minimizing human suffering should be the overriding concern in any HA/DR operation.
Recently, much scholarship and planning have been devoted to understanding and balancing the global ascendancy of the People’s Republic of China. The country is often euphemistically referred to as a “near-peer competitor,” and military planners tend to seek military solutions to counterbalance its rise. This planning is not baseless; it is driven by guidance developed by President Barack Obama, and articulated by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as the U.S. realigned its geopolitical strategy. In a 2011 article that laid out the United States’ new Asia focus, Secretary Clinton noted that “China represents one of the most challenging and consequential bilateral relationships the United States has ever had to manage. This calls for careful, steady, dynamic stewardship, an approach to China . . . that is grounded in reality, focused on results, and true to our principles and interests.”10
No doubt challenges such as PRC anti-access area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the South China Sea, excessive territorial claims, and notoriously secretive leadership will continue to test U.S. determination to ensure a stable world order. Even so, the U.S. remains interested in fostering a more robust relationship with China. The big question is, does China want the same? And, if it does, how could the U.S. and Chinese governments go about building such ties?
It Fits With Deng’s Approach
The past four decades of blistering growth in China demonstrate a unique relationship between China and the United States. This symbiosis began with the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping, who led China’s reform efforts during the early and mid-1980s. Deng’s pragmatic approach to China’s development (or more appropriately, his approach to rebuilding China after the iron-handed rule of Mao Zedong following Mao’s death in 1976) focused on an inside-out approach.
So if both sides have expressed their desire to cooperate, have a history of cooperation, and have the ability to cooperate, what areas could the United States and its “near-peer competitor” find in which to further their cooperation?11 Given United States interest in security, prosperity, democratic values, and international order, and a mutual interest in fostering global stability, evidence suggests that HA/DR would be ideally suited for cooperation between the two nations, and that they should pursue these ties.12
The two sides should build upon four decades of cooperation and coordination between the United States and China. In his landmark biography of Deng Xiaoping, Harvard professor Ezra Vogel discusses Deng’s “basic approach to reform,” a lesson the United States would be well served to heed in order to maintain global stability: “Don’t argue; try it. If it works, let it spread.”13
1. Robert F. Willard, “Statement of Admiral Robert F. Willard, U.S. Navy, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on U.S. Pacific Command Posture,” U.S. Pacific Command, 28 February 2012, www.armed-services.senate.gov/statemnt/2012/02%20February/Willard%2002-28-12.pdf.
2. Terril Yue Jones, “Chinese, US soldiers complete disaster relief drill amid Asia tensions,” MSN News, 30 November 2012.
3. Associated Press, “US and Chinese militaries hold disaster-relief simulation as trust-building exercise,” Washington Post, 30 November 2012, www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/us-and-chinese-militaries-hold-disaster-relief-simulation-as-trust-building-exercise/2012/11/30/f75b8016-3ab1-11e2-9258-ac7c78d5c680_story.html.
4. Ed Ross, “U.S.-China Military Interaction—a Dysfunctional Relationship” The Daily Caller, 14 September 2010, http://dailycaller.com/2010/06/14/u-s-china-military-interaction-a-dysfunctional-relationship/.
5. New Straits Times, “China Serious About Naval Meeting,” 26 September 2012, www.asiaone.com/News/AsiaOne%2BNews/Malaysia/Story/A1Story20120926-373893.html.
6. Jeff Franks, “Chinese Navy Hospital Ship Visits Cuba, Caribbean” Reuters, 22 October 2011, http://in.reuters.com/article/2011/10/21/idINIndia-60058520111021.
7. Nirav Patel, “Chinese Disaster Relief Operations—Identifying Critical Capability Gaps,” Joint Force Quarterly, Issue 52, 1st Quarter 2009, www.hsdl.org/?view&did=32688
8. Li, “Chinese Civil-Military Relations in the Post-Deng Era,” U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, Newport, RI, January 2010 27.
9. Jane Perlez, “Alarm as China Issues Rules for Disputed Area,” The New York Times, 1 December 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/world/asia/alarm-as-china-issues-rules-for-disputed-sea.html?_r=0.
10. Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, November 2011, www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/10/11/americas_pacific_century?page=full.
11. Willard, “US Pacific Command Posture Statement.”
12. Barack Obama, “National Security Strategy,” May 2010, www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/national_security_strategy.pdf.
13. Ezra F. Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 449.