One Way to Boost US-China Military Cooperation

By Kent Hughes Butts; Geoffrey D Dabelko | The Christian Science Monitor, April 21, 2009 | Go to article overview

One Way to Boost US-China Military Cooperation


Kent Hughes Butts; Geoffrey D Dabelko, The Christian Science Monitor


Recently, the Defense Department warned that lack of Chinese transparency and dialogue between the Chinese and US militaries could lead to dangerous miscalculations on both sides. The tense confrontation between a US Naval survey vessel and five Chinese ships in the South China Sea in March echoed the rather serious 2001 Hainan Island stray US jet incident, which was characterized by mutual suspicion and public acrimony. That event affected US-China relations for years.

To avoid further incidents, the Defense Department desires "deeper, broader, more high-level contacts with the Chinese," said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell. The White House issued a statement stressing the "importance of raising the level and frequency of the US-China military-to-military dialogue," and President Obama quickly laid the groundwork by meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in London and agreeing to work to improve military-to-military relations.

One such way to begin military dialogue between the United States and China is by using environmental issues.

Environmental collaboration is unlikely to hit politically sensitive buttons, and thus offers great potential to deepen dialogue and cooperation. Military-to-military dialogue can facilitate the sharing of best practices on a range of environmental security issues. It can help both nations and their regional partners prepare for natural disasters - which are expected to intensify in a warming world - and improve the ability of civilian agencies and militaries to adapt to the impacts of climate change. It can also develop personal relationships that can provide deeper understanding in times of crisis.

For nearly two decades, the US military has used environmental engagement as a key strategy to reduce tensions and improve relations with both adversaries and friends. In the wake of the cold war, the US collaborated with Russia by jointly assessing the threats from radioactive waste in northwestern Russia. In the 1990s, US Central Command conducted exercises with the newly independent Central Asian republics to address natural disasters and the environmental legacy of the Soviet era. In 2001, Gen. Tommy Franks, then commander of US Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee, "While environmental factors can easily trigger conflict, cooperation on these issues can promote regional stability and contribute to the ongoing process of conflict resolution."

Deeper environmental engagement with China would capitalize on both militaries' prior experience. From the late 1990s through the George W. Bush administration, the People's Liberation Army joined the US military, as well as India and Pakistan, for multilateral conferences on climate-change adaptation, disaster preparedness, and earthquake response.

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