“We kind of expected guys that didn’t know what they were doing,” said Staff Sgt. Jonathan Jason, an Oregon National Guardsman. “That proved not to be the case.” Jason had spent the previous few days at Camp Rilea on the Oregon Coast working with members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army as part of the 2017 Disaster Management Exchange—better known as the DME.
The DME is specifically titled an “exchange” rather than an “exercise,” as the latter suggests that one group is training the other. While the U.S. and Chinese governments can find themselves of friendly terms, it’s far from an alliance. “These guys are pretty on the ball,” Jason explained. “So it really was an exchange.”
As Jason spoke, Chinese and American troops were figuring out how to get survivors out a mock “building”—in reality, a chain of freight containers and concrete slabs. As junior troops worked in the field, senior officers and civilian experts gathered in a multinational coordination center.
The scenario was fictional, but drew on data from real-life natural disasters. Chinese and American troops were tasked to work together to rescue survivors after a deadly flood.
“They’re a lot more patient than we are,” observed Maj. Adam Charles, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. “They really like to take in everything before they act, which during a natural disaster is good. When you start breaking open buildings is good. You don’t want to end up causing more harm or damage.”
A medical officer, Charles had been spending the exchange working with medical personnel. For him, the biggest difference between him and his counterparts was merely the language, though he noted many of the Chinese troops spoke fairly good English.
Yang Qian, a Chinese army nurse, said she enjoyed working with her American counterparts and that this exchange had already made them reconsider how they use some her equipment. She pointed out that medical tubing that Chinese troops use to insert into the nose is wider than what the Americans use.
They realized that was in part due to physiological differences between Chinese patients and many Western patients with narrower nostrils. She said that’s something Chinese medics may need to consider while deployed in other parts of the world.
While the Americans seemed impressed by the Chinese’s high level of preparation as well as their methodical approach, the Chinese were impressed by the American troops’ ability to improvise and adapt. “I think they are more flexible,” Lt. Ma Sihua said.
Several had deployed on U.N. peacekeeping missions—including de-mining operations in Lebanon—and many had responded to floods and earthquakes at home in China. “It’s been refreshing,” Lt. Caleb Tumulty said, explaining that usually when foreign troops visit for training like this it’s often so the Americans can teach them basic skills. With the Chinese it’s been way different. “The moment you say you want to start, they’re ready to go.”
The timing of the event coincided with the return of Pres. Donald Trump from his first official state visit to Asia, where he met with Chinese leaders.
One American soldier quietly confided that he was unsure how the president might behave during the trip and how it might impact this exchange, which had been planned well in advance. Tensions in the Asia-Pacific region are high.
Foreign military observers from Canada, Japan, Bangladesh, Singapore and The Philippines were in attendance. All have a stake in how the U.S. and Chinese militaries interact.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re officially … ,” Jason said, pausing as he searched for a diplomatic descriptor. “Well, anything. But anyone should be able to save lives.”
“Multinational response has proven to be the most effective method to save lives in responding to a crisis,” Gen. Robert Brown, commander of U.S. Army Pacific, told participants during the exchange’s closing ceremony. “It was central during the earthquakes in Nepal, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and other devastating events across the Indo-Pacific region. Ultimately this is about saving lives and minimizing human suffering in disaster zones.”
Brown told Chinese an American reporters that he hopes that these exchanges lead to American and Chinese governments being able to cooperate in more practical terms, and that they prepare themselves for more complex scenarios. “For whatever reason we’ve seen just over this past year an incredible increase in the complexity and devastation of national disasters.”
He cited the 2011 Japanese earthquake and Tsunami, which also resulted in a the Fukashima nuclear disaster as a case study that proves that both country’s need to be ready to respond to complex—and conceivably absurd scenarios.
Both the U.S. and Chinese militaries responded to the earthquakes in Nepal in 2015. Though they didn’t work directly together, they both worked out of a multinational coordination center with other countries. “I have been in exercises as a younger officer where there was no MNCC and coordination was very difficult among many nations and we wasted a lot of efforts and could have saved lives better,” Brown said. “As we all know in a disaster time is critical.”
Brown acknowledged that the relationship between Washington and Beijing hasn’t always been ideal, but he said that doesn’t typically impact humanitarian operations. He mentioned that during the West African Ebola Crisis the United States sent the 101st Airborne Division, while China sent a team of medical experts. “The tensions that happen don’t really impact on this, because we’ve found an area of common interest, and that’s saving lives.”