Despite the temporary trade-truce called by the United States and China during this past weekend’s G20 summit in Buenos Aires, official relations between the two countries remain at their lowest point in decades. Newsreels continually highlight the role of the escalating trade-war in the increasingly fractured relationship (symbolized by erecting new tariffs, blocking investments, and filing WTO disputes), as well as the harsher political rhetoric that is fraying bonds even further (typified Vice President Pence’s speech in October). Much less cited, however, has been the recent deterioration in military relations between the two powers.
Military tensions in the South China Sea over disputed-sovereignty, freedom-of-navigation, and island-militarization have boiled over. In May, the United States rescinded China’s invitation to participate in its biennial multilateral Rim of the Pacific Exercise (after China had participated in 2014 and 2016). “RimPac” involved 27 nations in a display of international military cooperation in the region, and excluding China sent a strong signal. More alarmingly, it eliminated the only formal, large-scale military cooperation effort the two countries had maintained with one another. More recently, American and Chinese warships narrowly avoided a high-seas collision in these same disputed-waters. The Pentagon accused the Chinese Navy of using “an unsafe and unprofessional maneuver” and the Chinese accused the Americans of threatening their “sovereignty and security.” It’s clear that economic and political disagreements are spilling over into the military realm.
The darkening cloud over military relations creates real risks that miscommunication, misunderstanding, or even a complete accident could lead to unwanted conflict between the world’s two superpowers. For the sake of global security, the United States and China must quickly identify new productive mechanisms to strengthen military-to-military relationships with one another. Joint Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HADR) operations present an effective, and relatively noncontroversial, way for the U.S. and China to do just that.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has led the charge in responding to nearly every major natural disaster in Southeast Asia because of its wide-ranging naval presence and deep regional relationships. In recent years, however, China has modernized its navy, and its capabilities increasingly rival the U.S. in this region. While certainly motivated by strategic competition, these changes also present the U.S. and China with tremendous opportunities for military cooperation through joint-HADR operations.
Southeast Asia is one of the regions at the highest risk from the adverse effects of climate change. With dispersed islands, fragile coastal populations, and poor infrastructure, the nations and peoples of this region are under perilous threat from tropical storms that are more frequent and more powerful. Yet, because climate change is perhaps the only truly global problem, it offers unique opportunities for collaboration between governments who are otherwise hesitant or suspicious of one another, such as the U.S. and China.
The Philippines would be a sound partner for the United States and China to cooperate with each other via newly-minted joint HADR operations. It is one of the most climate-change prone countries in the region, laying in the path of upwards of ten to twenty cyclones each year, with several mega-storms. The Philippines and the United States are longstanding allies with a mutual-defense treaty that solidifies their multifaceted military relationship. The U.S. military’s relief efforts after Typhoon Haiyan showcased the close HADR cooperation between the two governments. Nevertheless, Manila and Beijing have grown increasingly close in recent years, especially under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has courted Chinese investment and aid. Despite Duterte’s loud public calls for closer relations with China, however, military cooperation between the Philippines and China is still pretty sparse. While in Manilla recently, a senior Filipino military official mentioned that their only HADR military-cooperation efforts with China involve training to evacuate victims from collapsed structures in the event of an earthquake. While this is important, regional HADR cooperation should go much further.
To make this a reality, the United States and China should first establish a HADR framework in partnership with the Philippines. Such a framework should include mechanisms to facilitate communication, distribute information, and share responsibility during a crisis. The next step would be to arrange and execute small-scale, trilateral HADR training exercises together. This will prepare military professionals from all three countries to operate together under normal circumstances. Then, when the next major humanitarian disaster strikes the Philippines, the U.S. and China will be enabled to respond effectively in partnership with local authorities during the actual crisis.
The Philippines case-study provides a strong example of how the region and its two most important powers would benefit from more regular, formal avenues for military cooperation. Joint HADR operations would serve as a meaningful confidence-building measure between the United States and China, especially considering how low trust is between the two parties currently. It would also give the opportunity for military professionals from both countries to engage with one another, creating important relationships that could be drawn upon in the future to quell potential moments of uncertainty or tension. Ultimately, it could help set the foundation for cooperation in the region by establishing a pattern of productive interactions that could inspire improvement in other areas of U.S.-China relations as well.
About the author: Austin McKinney is an officer in the United States Air Force Reserve, with active-duty experience in humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, studied as a Marshall Scholar at the London School of Economics, and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy. The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Government or the Department of Defense. Austin is thankful to the Carnegie Council’s Asia Dialogues Program and the Henry Luce Foundation for facilitating his research on climate change and national security.