US and Chinese soldiers join forces to confront disaster on an American military base
Personnel team up in emergency exercise amid growing strategic rivalry between the two powers
A man lay on the grass, shivering beneath his bloodstained T-shirt as Chinese military doctors and US Army medics hovered over him, applying a splint and an IV. Troops nearby prepared to move the injured.
On a pine-studded base along the Oregon coast, military units from two seemingly unlikely partners were carrying out a joint response to a natural disaster. It was only a drill, but the roughly 100 soldiers from China and the United States and their top commanders are ready to use what they learned in a real disaster, no matter the state of relations between the nations.
“The tensions that happen really don’t impact this, because we’ve found an area of common interest: that’s saving lives and disaster response and humanitarian assistance,” General Robert Brown, commander of Hawaii-based US Army Pacific, said on Sunday, the last day of the exercise.
Washington and Beijing are striving to foster military ties to avoid a confrontation and potentially work together where their interests do not collide. That’s despite a growing strategic rivalry between the two world powers and frictions over North Korea and China’s island building in the disputed South China Sea.
Major General Zhang Jian, a senior commander who visited Oregon, said US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed hope during Trump’s visit to China this month that military relations could be a stabilising factor. Zhang said the disaster exercises, which the US and China host in alternate years, evolved from academic discussions to boots on the ground in the last few years.
“I think it is very positive in the fact that it can enhance mutual understanding, it can reduce the risk of miscalculation and misperception, and will definitely help to build a more secure and stable regional situation,” Zhang said through an interpreter, as Brown nodded.
US and Chinese forces have not collaborated yet on disaster response, but Brown said he expected them to.
In the recent drill, the soldiers practised responding to a massive flood. The skills also could help in an earthquake as they used a large drill to practise extricating survivors from a collapsed building, or in a tsunami.
It was the first time in the United States for most of the Chinese soldiers, who wore red flag shoulder patches on their uniforms. The Americans tried to make the Chinese feel at home as they carried out their mission.
“Cook in dining hall here tries to make what he thinks is Chinese food, even though it tastes not like the same in China,” said Lieutenant Mo Si Hua, one of the few Chinese soldiers who spoke some English. “But that make us comfortable and feel like home.”
A main difference in how the Chinese soldiers operated from the Americans was “they have more patience”, US Army Major Adam Charles said.
“We want to rush in. They study things,” Charles said as a team nearby broke apart a concrete slab in rubble near several crushed cars.
He said taking time to assess was beneficial, because hasty rescuers could wind up in need of rescue themselves.
With only a couple of interpreters, language was an impediment. But not many words were needed when medical teams jumped into action, because they used similar approaches, said Tian Jing, a People’s Liberation Army doctor.
A team of four Chinese and American medics worked on a US soldier lying in the grass. One medic prepared a splint as a nurse inserted an IV needle into the man’s forearm. With a gesture from a Chinese medic, one of his American counterparts helped steady a leg while the splint was attached.
Soldiers stretched ropes across a waterway, affixed the injured in stretchers to the ropes, then pulled them across. Chinese medics said they usually practised on mannequins and that using people added realism.
Participants also gained experience organising and deploying assets, said US Army Major Valente Perry, who helped in the aftermath of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to come together, to pool our resources so we’re not just butting heads the whole time,” Perry said. “And so you try to get through that stuff and work through the kinks in exchanges like this.”
Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that while the US hoped the exercises paved the way for cooperation in a natural disaster, she d did not think there were expectations they would ease bilateral tensions.
“That’s a bridge too far,” she said.