“When I was in Iraq, we a lot of times had to treat female patients” U.S. Army medic Sgt. Leslie Peterson told a group Chinese troops. She was answering a question from a Chinese medic about how U.S. troops balance medical needs with cultural concerns about modesty depending on what country they’re operating in.
Peterson explained that U.S. troops would do their best, but that medical necessity was paramount. “You have to be mindful of the culture but you still have to save their life,” she answered. She and the visitors spoke to one another through a Chinese-American soldier fluent in both languages.
The soldiers joined together recently for a Disaster Management Exchange at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) in Washington state. Officers and troops from the two countries explained and demonstrated how their respective militaries deal with humanitarian disasters. This was the first time American and Chinese troops have done ground-level training together on the American mainland.
2015 has been a tense year for U.S.-China relations. The Obama administration has been boosting the U.S. military’s presence in the Pacific while Beijing has been engaging in an ambitious program to modernize its military. Increasing confrontation over islands and waterways in the South China Sea have led to several standoffs between Washington and Beijing.
Most recently in October, guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen approached one of China’s controversial man-made islands, spurring a diplomatic row. But in the weeks since, the two superpowers have been using much more conciliatory rhetoric. The same week as the exchange at JBLM, U.S. navy destroyer USS Stethem docked at in Shanghai for a five-day visit.
“This exercise is a specific measure taken by the two sides to advance practical cooperation between us,” said Maj. Gen. Zhang Jian, commander of the Chinese troops who participated in the JBLM exchange. “It has helped the two sides to understand more about each other, advance our cooperation, and to promote our collective abilities in response to natural disasters.”
Massive disasters often require a military response. But just as the U.S. and Chinese armed forces have a complicated relationship with each other, military institutions in general often have an uneasy relationship with aid groups. Humanitarians have a tendency to eye soldiers and militaries—who generally train to destroy things—with a great deal of suspicion.
However, natural disasters can be just as destructive as armed conflicts and leave lasting damage. Powerful earthquakes and tsunamis can decimate cities and population centers and create conditions for the spread of diseases. The destruction of infrastructure and roads can make it nearly impossible to deliver food and medical supplies, evacuate survivors or treat the injured.
Military organizations can provide logistical capabilities—such as planes and helicopters—that aid groups simply can’t assemble on a moment’s notice. Commanders can quickly transport in aid as well task troops to assist with search-and-rescue in the immediate aftermath of tragedies.
The exchange at JBLM centered on a scenario in a fictional earthquake-ravaged island nation. “This definitely applies to both the U.S. and China as earthquakes are a concern for both countries and both countries are heavily involved in assisting countries affected by earthquakes,” explained Cpt. Brint Ingersoll, an air mobility planner from the 36th Contingency Response Group based in Guam.
The humanitarian training exercises included about 100 American troops and about 80 Chinese service members. In the field, the troops practiced search and rescue techniques, debris management and evacuating casualties.
“This [simulation]has really added a much more complex role with interagency [coordination],” explained Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, commander of I Corps. Officers set up a simulated multinational coordination center where soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and a slew of other personnel from the two countries planned operations.
“We want to add more to it, make it more complicated so that the more work we do on this end, the more prepared we are if an actual disaster were to happen,” explained Cpt. Mike Sim, a U.S. Coast Guard officer stationed at the American embassy in Beijing.
The U.S. military’s Pacific Command holds similar training with several other countries throughout Asia. “It’s always important because natural disaster happen all the time,” Ingersoll explained. “We know – I know specifically – by living in Guam and working in Asia-Pacific that its very disaster-prone, and it’s not really a question of if, but when and where.”
Most recently both U.S. and Chinese militaries sent troops as part of the international response to the April earthquake in Nepal. “I was on the ground in Nepal for a month dealing with the disaster relief, so we have a lot of lessons learned from both sides,” said Ingersoll. “Nothing ever goes perfectly.”
But while no disaster response is perfect, Ingersoll said he’d regard the Nepal response as a successful one as from a military standpoint. “We were there responding to the disaster and we did phased approach to withdrawal to turn over what we were doing to the humanitarian community,” Ingersoll said. “[That’s] something we hadn’t done well in the past, and we did it very well in Nepal.”
The airman stressed that though the military has unique capabilities, the military is best suited to play a supporting role – and one that is ideally brief. Ultimately it’s civilian agencies and aid groups that are best suited at rebuilding communities. “It’s important that we get there and we do the job that we’re unique suited to do, and that we can turn it over to the people that are going to be there in the long-term,” Ingersoll said.
For the Chinese and American militaries, communication has historically been a challenge. “There’s always a communication barrier between the U.S. and China,” Sim said. During the exchange, leaders often relied heavily on interpreters.
“Sometimes there are relationships that are defined by culture, that are perhaps defined by language, [but]there’s a common culture between military organizations that exists,” said Lanza. “A relationship starts developing just based on skill sets, commonalities and a language between military professionals that we build on in the future.”
Last year Chinese military accepted an invitation to the massive Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise, in Hawaii. The Chinese Navy’s hospital ship Peace Ark docked at Pearl Harbor. The medical ship’s presence was meant to demonstrate Beijing’s commitment to humanitarian operations. But the vessel was accompanied by an uninvited guest to RIMPAC —a spy ship.
The two sides may agree on the need to work more closely on disaster relief, but they’re definitely not the Planeteers. Nevertheless, the two militaries continue to strengthen disaster cooperation even when Beijing and Washington find themselves at odds.
Troops taking part in the exchange seemed to enjoy meeting their counterparts. “With all the craziness that’s been happening in the world lately it’s nice to work with the Chinese army,” said Spec. William Soyster, a medic stationed at JBLM. “It really just shows that we’re all human, and that we’re all in this together.”