An American soldier from the 8th Theater Sustainment Command and a People’s Liberation Army soldier during joint US-China Disaster Management Exchange in Kunming, China, November 17, 2016. Image: PACOM/Alvin Reeves

The US Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are now holding the 16th running of the Disaster Management Exchange, an annual bilateral training exercise that started in 2005.  Yes, this is the same PLA that the US Army is supposedly getting ready to fight and vice versa.  There must be something in the water at US Army headquarters.

Judging by the recent reports about this joint – if virtual – humanitarian disaster response training, it looks like US Army leadership still can’t decide if Uighur detention camps, turning the Chinese Gestapo loose on Hong Kong or the PLA getting ready to kill Americans including US Army servicemen by the thousands are a bad thing. 

One wonders how America can possibly prevail with this sort of thinking in senior military ranks?  It doesn’t seem to align with US national security strategy. The Donald Trump administration has been better than its predecessors in categorizing the PLA as a potential adversary. But US Army leadership appears to consider that optional.

As I wrote a while back, the US Army hasn’t known what it thinks about China for several years. In 2013, the commander of the 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 China Sea, cracked down on a million-plus Uighurs, seized territory from US treaty ally the Philippines, 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, the then-PACOM commander, US Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear, said climate change – not China – was his biggest worry.

Earthquake Disaster Response Rescue Team Leader Staff Sergeant Donald Parker coordinates with China PLA soldiers for rescue and recovery response to a mock earthquake at the US-China Disaster Management Exchange, November 18, 2016, Kunming, China. Image: PACCOM/Specialist Alvin Reeves

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 12 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, the recurring 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 election matters, but INDOPACOM – situated 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 humanitarian disaster relief 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 America’s expense. At some point, there is the possibility US help might not be needed or welcome.

Consider the optics of the US Army and PLA in a training love fest – even if over the internet – 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 Defense Department and military leaders can’t think straight – or aren’t serious about a supposed China threat. Or perhaps the Uighur concentration camps, freedom in Hong Kong and bullying America’s friends don’t matter that much.

Chinese PLA Navy soldiers on a naval vessel in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

Indeed, the US invites an avowed adversary – just read the Chinese press for a week or recall the Chinese admiral who not too long ago called for sinking a few US Navy ships and killing 10,000 Americans – to conduct training together.

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 effectively off-limits.

So while the US Army locks arms with the PLA it is apparently too much for Americans to train seriously 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 in a meaningful way.

Small training and observer teams don’t matter much. 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 knew what’s best for Taipei.

It is a situation deserving of a Congressional investigation.

Taiwanese soldiers wearing face masks listen to an address by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen during her visit to a military base in Tainan, southern Taiwan, on April 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Sam Yeh

The complaints regarding Taiwan, in fact, apply to most American allies and partners – almost none of which 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 is unwilling to do more than it wants.

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 PLA to Hawaii for exercises, – as was done last year despite being an avowed adversary – why not invite the Taiwan navy and marines instead? They are friends, after all. And they haven’t locked up a million of their citizens in “vocational training” camps. Indeed, they even had a real election to choose their president in January 2020.

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy.