CHENGDU, China – The U.S. and Chinese militaries on Friday wrapped up a modest disaster-relief exercise hailed as a tentative step in building trust between armed forces that often view each other as adversaries.
While not a full-fledged operation, the two-day exercise at People's Liberation Army barracks outside the city of Chengdu consisted of U.S. and Chinese officers sitting around a table facing a flat-panel video screen and discussing how they would respond to an earthquake in a fictional third country.
Though this was the eighth meeting to discuss disaster relief, it was the first time both sides discussed a joint response to a simulated disaster. The leading officers called that a step forward in building familiarity and trust.
U.S. Major General Stephen Lyons said the exercise began the groundwork for the day when the two militaries will operate side-by-side in an actual humanitarian operation.
"I think it's very conceivable. If there is a country out there, and there inevitably there will be, that will have a natural disaster, and they call for international help, if U.S. forces and Chinese forces respond, then indeed we'll find ourselves working together in the field," Lyons said in comments to reporters.
Though Washington and Beijing have talked about boosting military cooperation for more than a decade, distrust runs high and disagreements over Taiwan, North Korea and China's claims to disputed territories in the East and South China seas remain potential flashpoints. Washington's concerns over China's military buildup and Beijing's misgivings that the U.S. military's renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific region have raised distrust higher.
The modest scope of the table-top simulation underscores the underlying hesitation and distrust on both sides, particularly in Beijing, which tends to view military exchanges as a form of diplomatic leverage to be severed at times of tension.
This year's exchange comes as China has been flexing its military muscle and raising regional tensions. Last week China staged the first successful landing of planes on its newly commissioned aircraft carrier, a sign of its rapid progress toward deploying the ultimate symbol of naval power and a potent tool for projecting military force far from its shores.