For the First Time, Chinese Troops Entered an American Base on the West Coast
U.S. and Chinese militaries train for natural disasters
“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 of her counterparts with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. She was answering a question from a Chinese medic about how Americans balance medical needs with cultural concerns about modesty in parts of the world.
Peterson explained that American troops did their best to respect women’s modesty where possible, but that medical necessity was paramount. “You have to be mindful of the culture but you still have to save their life,” she said. Peterson and the visitors spoke to each other through a Chinese-American soldier fluent in both languages.
The hospital tent was crammed full of medical troops and dozens of American and Chinese reporters. Cameras flashed as the two groups of soldiers tried to communicate. The Chinese and American soldiers were joining together for a Disaster Management Exchange at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, where officers and troops from the two countries explained and demonstrated how their respective militaries deal with disasters.
This was part of a historic event. It was the first time American and Chinese troops have done ground-level training together on the American mainland.
Since 2012 the U.S. Army’s I Corps based at JBLM has become central to Pres. Barack Obama’s increased emphasis on East Asia and the Pacific — a strategy often referred to as “The Pacific Pivot.” In September, I Corps simultaneously hosted troops from both India and Japan for training exercises in Washington state. Both countries have territorial disputes with Beijing.
The Pacific Pivot coincides with an ambitious Chinese plan to modernize the PLA. This year has been particularly tense for U.S.-China relations. Increasing confrontation over islands and waterways in the South China Sea have led to several standoffs between the Chinese and American navies.
Most recently in October, the 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, destroyer USS Stethem docked at Wusong military port 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 that 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.”
Chinese troops prepare to evacuate a Washington National Guardsman playing a wounded earthquake survivor on Nov. 20 during Disaster Management Exchange at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. Kevin Knodell photo
Preparing for catastrophes
The scenario centered on a fictional island nation that’s been ravaged by a massive earthquake resulting in a major humanitarian crisis, prompting both superpowers to respond.
“This definitely applies to both the U.S. and China,” said Cpt. Brint Ingersoll, an air mobility planner from the Guam-based 36th Contingency Response Group. “Earthquakes are a concern for both countries and both countries are heavily involved in assisting countries affected by earthquakes.”
This exercise built upon previous engagements. These exchanges have been going on since 2005, but these were largely between senior and mid-level officers giving presentations to each other. Each iteration has added layers to the training. The first time Chinese and American troops did practical field training was in 2012 when the PLA hosted an American contingent on the Chinese mainland.
Though this was the first time in the continental United States, it’s not the first time the two militaries have trained together on American soil. In 2013, Chinese troops took part in a previous DME with National Guardsmen in Hawaii.
This iteration included about 100 American troops and about 80 Chinese servicemembers. In the field, the troops practiced search and rescue techniques, debris management and evacuating casualties.
“This particular one has really added a much more complex role with interagency [coordination],” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, the 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.
“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 it’s very disaster-prone, and it’s not really a question of if, but when and where.”
When a massive earthquake rocked Haiti in January 2010, American troops responded to assist U.N. peacekeepers with relief efforts and restoring order. While there, U.S. paratroopers conducted joint patrols with members of the Chinese People’s Armed Police — a well-equipped force with close ties to PLA — that were stationed in Haiti with the U.N. mission.
Most recently, both militaries sent troops to Nepal to help survivors in the immediate aftermath of the destructive April quake. “I was on the ground in Nepal for a month dealing with the disaster relief,” Ingersoll said. “So we have a lot of lessons learned from both sides, nothing ever goes perfectly.”
“I think this a great example of the United States and China working together for a common cause, a good cause,” Sim said. The officer said that getting soldiers from the two countries to interact with each other is important. “We have more in common than we think.”
He conceded that communication was often a challenge. “There’s always a language barrier between the U.S. and China,” Sim said. During the exchange, leaders often relied heavily on translators to get their ideas across.
“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 skillsets, commonalities and a language between military professionals that we build on in the future.”
In fall 2014, American and Australian troops trained with Chinese troops in Australia for an extended wilderness survival exercise. The same year, the Chinese navy accepted an invitation to the massive multinational RIMPAC exercise in Hawaii. During that visit War Is Boring toured the Chinese navy’s hospital ship Peace Ark. But the Chinese also brought an uninvited guest to RIMPAC — a spy ship.
So it’s hard to say how far this partnership will or can go. Nevertheless both Zhang and Lanza were adamant that maintaining relationships and meeting face-to-face is vital. “That’s what helps de-escalate conflict and avoid miscalculation,” Lanza said.
Officers and civilian officials from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Malaysia were also present as observers for the exercise. “I believe this engagement will help the two sides to have a sound interaction in the Asia pacific region so we can jointly maintain peace and stability,” Zhang said.
After the field training wrapped up and brief press conference with Lanza and Zhang, the organizers rallied all the participants for a U.S. Coast Guard demonstration of a helicopter search and rescue operation. As Chinese and American troops stood by the water, waiting in the cold for the show to start, they began to mingle.
A pair of English speaking Chinese junior officers chatted with an American airman. One of the Chinese officers talked about how much he loves traveling and about his own ties to the United States — he said he has relatives who live in America. When the helicopter showed up, the audience whipped out their phones and cameras to record the demonstration.
Almost everyone had an iPhone — an American product manufactured in China. Several posed with each other for photos.
During the trauma demonstration in the medical tent, a Chinese medic asked a question about what sort of sedatives the Americans would use for combat casualties. “Uhhh … am I allowed to answer that?” Peterson asked a superior.
After getting the go ahead, she answered the question — but it was a reminder that the relationship between the two militaries is complicated.
Still, Peterson was incredibly enthusiastic about the exercise and about interacting her Chinese counterparts. “This has been one of the best, most fun experiences of my career,” she said, explaining that she enjoyed the opportunity to learn about the Chinese troops and their culture even though she usually had to talk through an interpreter.
“With all the craziness that’s been happening in the world lately it’s nice to work with the Chinese army,” added Spec. William Soyster, another medic. “It really just shows that we’re all human, and that we’re all in this together.”