As Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines on Nov. 2, about 60 soldiers from the Chinese military were in Hawaii taking part in a joint military exercise with the United States and several other nations to better coordinate relief efforts in the event of a typhoon in the region.
The military exercise was timely, if not ironic, but it also underscores China's growing willingness to work with its neighbors, even if they're not allies.
After first offering just $100,000 in aid, China has now pledged $1.4 million after a recent editorial in China's Global Times criticized the government for not doing more for the Philippines, which lies right across the contested South China Sea. "China, as a responsible power, should participate in relief operations to assist a disaster-stricken neighboring country, no matter whether it's friendly or not. China's international image is of vital importance to its interests. If it snubs Manila this time, China will suffer great losses," the editorial said.
China is learning what U.S. military leaders have known for some time, which is that disaster relief and humanitarian aid are among of the most effective tools in the national security toolbox. It's also central to the Pentagon's post-war rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.
"The key pillars of our defense strategic guidance is to -- not just in the Asia Pacific region, but elsewhere -- build partner capacity. One of the linchpins of that guidance is to continue to invest in our allies and partnerships, particularly in the Asia Pacific region, where we have had bases open and closed over the years," said Pentagon Press Secretary George Little last week. "The goal is not to have new permanent bases for the U.S. military, but it's to enable rotational presences so that we can work together with allies and partners in the region to address problems like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief."
During a speech this weekend in California, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said disaster relief helps build these partnerships -- but it also provides priceless PR for the U.S. military. "When America responds to these kinds of human tragedies the way we are, the world sees the best of who we are," he said.
The joint exercise in Hawaii wasn't the first the Chinese participated in, but it was the first coordinated field exercise and is part of China's growing participation in maritime exercises in the region, including anti-piracy operations. It's exactly the kind of openness senior U.S. leaders have hoped for from the People's Liberation Army. As the U.S. looks for ways to connect with the PLA, some planners have suggested the Pentagon -- the Army in particular -- should do whatever it can to get China to participate in humanitarian exercises like disaster relief operations and civilian evacuations. The thinking goes that those types of operations are far more likely to occur in the years to come than any American land invasion of the Chinese mainland, and therefore that's what the U.S. Army should be training to do.
"What the American and Chinese militaries have tried to do, and we've been making more headway over this over the last year or two is to define domains in which both countries see an opportunity to cooperate without infringing on either country's perceptions of their sovereignty," said Jonathan Pollack, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings Institute.
The United States responded significantly after the 2004 tsunami, and even offered aid to Burma, which refused to let U.S. Navy ships dock there to deliver medicine and supplies. "We recognize obviously that it's a huge benefit [to] perceptions of the United States, so you could say we're doing well by doing good, in some sense," Pollack said.
As China steps up its aid to the Philippines, it seems its government is mindful of perceptions as well.