What China Is Learing From the U.S. Military

They’re realizing that disaster relief and humanitarian aid are among of the most effective tools in the national security toolbox.

The Chinese honor guard marches during the welcome ceremony for U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, at the Defense Ministry in March 22, 2007 Beijing, China.
National Journal
Stephanie Gaskell, Defense One
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Stephanie Gaskell, Defense One
Nov. 20, 2013, 6:46 a.m.

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.

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