Navy Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of U.S. Pacific Command said yesterday that he and his Chinese counterpart had agreed to conduct two bilateral humanitarian assistance and disaster response exercises.
According to the Department of Defense:

Keating said he and Chinese Lt. Gen. Zhang Qinsheng agreed over dinner last night “to begin active consideration” of a plan to exercise their forces together in a disaster relief scenario. Keating and Zhang, commander of the Guangzhou Military Region, discussed the possibility of two exercises, one in China and one in Hawaii or elsewhere in the United States, Keating said.

This is a welcome development that could open the door to substantive cooperation which will help the U.S. better understand the Chinese military. In March, I published a short essay, “International Disaster Relief and Humanitarian Assistance: A Future Role for the PLA?” which sets out some of the Chinese military’s perspectives on disaster relief missions and some of the opportunities it presents to us.

A modernizing PLA, PLA Navy and Air Force that espouses humanitarian and disaster relief mission objectives presents opportunities for the United States, the dominant naval power in the Pacific. The United States should encourage the PLA to take a role in these missions and consider various opportunities to cooperate. Exchange of personnel, joint missions and more extensive communication and collaboration between the two militaries will build trust and demystify the other, increase individual and institutional linkages, which will reduce the possibility of future misunderstanding or miscalculation. Most importantly, the efforts of both militaries to assist victims of disaster or poverty increases security in the region, benefiting not only China but the United States and its allies as well.

This is an important step towards addressing the apprehensions of U.S. strategic thinkers about the lack of transparency surrounding Chinese military modernization. Beyond guesswork about the opaque Chinese military budget, working together is the best way to understand our counterparts and gain a better understanding of what Chinese military intentions are.