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China, US holding joint drill in South China

Updated: 2015-01-13 09:09
By CHEN WEIHUA in Washington (China Daily USA)

China and the United States started a joint drill on Monday on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) to further improve military-to-military ties, long regarded as the least developed part of the overall bilateral relationship.

The drill between the two militaries and a symposium will be held from Jan 12-19 in Guangzhou of Guangdong province, and Haikou of Hainan province, according to China's Ministry of National Defense.

About 150 engineering and medical service personnel from the two nations will participate in the drill and talk, the ministry announced on Sunday.

Dave Eastburn, spokesman for the US Pacific Command, told China Daily on Monday that 30 US Army soldiers, four Marines, and four Coastguardsmen are joining 50 soldiers from China in a Disaster Management Exchange (DME). The 2015 DME, hosted by China's People's Liberation Army, includes three parts of an expert academic discussion, the establishment of a HA/DR coordination center and a practical field exchange.

"This long-established exchange underscores the commitment of both the US and the PRC to a comprehensive and strong military-to-military relationship in order to address security cooperation and HA/DR challenges across the region," Eastburn said.

While a joint military drill is nothing new, the fact that this drill is held in two cities facing the South China Sea has been seen as a move to help ease the tension over maritime territorial disputes, in particular between China and the Philippines and Vietnam.

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei rebuffed a Philippine accusation that China is building facilities in what the Philippines regarded as "disputed"Nansha Islands in South China Sea."China asserts indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and the affiliate waters. China's action on the Nansha Islands is entirely withinChina's sovereignty," Hong told a daily briefing in Beijing.

The US is concerned that it could be drawn into unintended military conflicts between China and the Philippines, its treaty ally.

The South China Sea has been an area of tension between China and the US because China has long opposed the frequent close-in US military surveillance along the Chinese coast there.

In April 2000, a US EP-3 spy plane clashed with a PLA fighter jet near Hainan Island, causing the death of Chinese pilot and the detention of 24 US crew after making an emergency landing in Hainan.

Last August, a US Navy P-8 surveillance plane and a Chinese J-11 fighter got close near Hainan Island, and in December 2013, the US Navy guided missile cruiser Cowpens and a Chinese fleet exercising in the South China Sea avoided a near collision.

Douglas Paal, vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it is helpful for the two militaries to meet in the South China Sea area, so forces can humanize their views of each other.

But he pointed out that it is more likely the drill is occurring there because the weather is reliably compliant compared to points further north.

"These exercises are all about instilling a degree of trust. For the US side, moreover, HA/DR is acceptable to Congress, when other forms of exercise might imply too much trust,"Paal said."At this stage of the US-China military rapprochement, it seems about right and welcome."

"It is welcome that the US and China are pursuing more military exercise. Perhaps China's agreement to conduct this drill in the South China Sea signals that Beijing sees the US as having a legitimate role to play in those waters. If so, it would be a positive message," said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The joint drill this time came just two months after President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama concluded more than 20 agreements in Beijing from climate change to military confidence building, injecting renewed optimism in a relationship that has been marred by disputes in cyber security and tensions in South and East China seas.

On the military front, the two leaders signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on rules of behavior for safety of air and maritime encounters, and an MOU on notification of major military activities and confidence building measures mechanism.

David Shambaugh, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said that 2013-2014 witnessed the broadest and deepest set of "mil-mil" exchanges in 25 years, and this new investment needs to be built upon.

"This will require, on the American side, revision or retraction of the 2000 Defense Authorization Act – which places a range of restrictions on what the Pentagon can do and not do in its exchanges with the People's Liberation Army," he wrote on the China-US Focus website."The US and Chinese militaries are at the heart of strategic interactions between the two nations, and all efforts must thus be made to deepen the interactions and communications between the two military establishments."

Zhu Bo, an honorary fellow with the Center of China-American Defense Relations at PLA Academy of Military Science, described the beauty of the MOU as being "tactical, more than strategic".

"At present, there are quite a few mechanisms between the two militaries, such as Defense Consultative Talks, Defense Policy Consultative Talks, Strategic Security Dialogue and a hotline, but they are all at strategic levels whereby only strategic issues are discussed by the two sides," Zhu wrote in the China-US Focus.

He said rules of behavior for safety of air and maritime encounters are tailor-made for officers, sailors and airmen from both sides. "It is them who deal with one another every day," he said.

But Zhu said that the MOU won't be able to resolve a strategic issue – lack of sufficient trust between China and the US, adding that China will not "legalize" US military activities in China's Exclusive Economic Zone.



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