A Chinese PLA Harbin Z-9 and a US SH-60B Sea Hawk helicopter retrieve a rescue swimmer during an exercise off the coast of Hawaii in 2013. Will China's training experience with the US military give them a tactical edge in the event of war? Photo: US Navy / AFP

Any military veteran recalls the excuse:  “I didn’t get the word.”

Such appears the case with the US Army. It just kicked off two weeks of humanitarian assistance-disaster relief (HA/DR) training in Hawaii with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The operation has begun despite Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently characterizing China as a dangerous adversary. The Pentagon’s National Security Strategy shares the sentiment, along with bipartisan agreement on the matter in the US Congress.

The US Army hasn’t known what it thinks about China for several years. In 2013 the commander of US Army Pacific declared he didn’t consider PLA a threat.

The current training exercise, known as Pacific Resilience, has been held annually since 2005 – even as China locked up the South Sea, cracked down on a million-plus Uyghurs, seized territory from the Philippines (a US treaty ally), tightened the noose on Taiwan, harassed US ships, bullied South Korea while keeping North Korea afloat and nuclear-armed, and conducted aggressive political warfare against US friends in the South and Central Pacific.

Of course, the other US military services had their problems too.

In 2014, then-PACOM commander, US Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear, said climate change – not China was his biggest worry.

Even the US Marines took their time figuring out the PRC. The Marine Corps Commandant visited the Chinese Marines in 2008 and gave them a ‘boys be ambitious’ sort of pep talk. But that was 11 years ago.

The US Army still can’t figure things out.

Despite Army leaders’ recent boasts that the US Army is back in the Pacific and itching to get into a fight, this week’s HA/DR exercise suggests a curious passive-aggressiveness towards the Chinese threat – or less charitably, resembles a rooster crowing from atop the barnyard dung heap.

The Trump administration may be distracted with Ukrainian matters, but INDOPACOM – located a few kilometers away from US Army Pacific headquarters – has some explaining to do.

Disaster relief

While some argue the training exercise is just disaster relief, 90% of the skills involved in this type of operation are identical to those required for combat. So help the PLA master joint operations – and the payback will come during a real war against US forces.

Moreover, improve Chinese HA/DR capabilities and expect the PRC to horn into disaster relief operations in Asia-Pacific and beyond – harvesting the political goodwill that comes of it – at US expense. And at some point, there is the possibility American help might not be needed or welcome.

Consider the optics of the US Army and PLA in a training ‘love fest’ while the US government and other components of the US military are warning that America had better get ready for a fight.

At best it suggests the US administration and military leaders can’t think straight – or aren’t serious about a supposed China threat. Or perhaps the Uyghur concentration camps, freedom in Hong Kong, and bullying America’s friends don’t matter that much.

Indeed, the US invites an avowed adversary – just read the Chinese press for a week or recall the Chinese admiral who recently called for sinking a few US Navy ships and killing 10,000 Americans – to come to Hawaii to train.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s military can’t get the time of day from US forces. It has suffered 40 years of effective isolation – and joint-training with the Americans remains off-limits.

So while the US Army locks arms with the PLA it is apparently too much for Americans to train with Taiwan – a Chinese democracy of 23 million people on an island that is indispensable to America’s Asia-Pacific defense posture. And there is the implicit guarantee to protect Taiwan.

Even though the Trump administration has been more supportive of Taiwan than any administration, it still won’t cooperate with Taiwan’s armed forces. There are excuses of course, but not convincing ones: ‘Taiwan needs to spend more on defense’, or ‘Taiwan won’t organize its defense properly’. And sometimes the impressive but condescending ‘opportunity cost’ is tossed in for good measure – as if only Americans know what’s best for Taipei.

It is a situation deserving of Congressional investigation.

The complaints regarding Taiwan, in fact, apply to most American allies and partners – almost none of whom spend what they should, or do what Washington wants. Japan is a prime example. According to the US government, it spends too little and with a military unable to do joint operations – and unwilling to do more than it wants. A good example occurred when Americans asked for help in the Persian Gulf recently.

Maybe if the US was willing to truly engage and train with Taiwan’s military it might be easier to persuade them to improve their defenses.

Instead of inviting the People’s Liberation Army to Hawaii for exercises, why not invite the Taiwan Navy and Marines? They are friends, after all. And they haven’t locked up a million of their citizens in ‘vocational training’ camps or blown up churches. They even have an election coming in January.

If the columnist Charles Krauthammer were alive, he would know what to say about the US Army’s latest Hawaii exercise: “Good grief!”

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