HONOLULU — The Army said it advanced disaster management cooperation with the People's Liberation Army on a trip to China by about 20 Hawaii-based soldiers, and the hope is the annual exchanges will expand in scope and size.
"We had very, very good, positive engagements, and we'll use this exercise, really, to build on future engagements," said Maj. Gen. Stephen Lyons, who led the delegation as commander of the 8th Theater Sustainment Command in Hawaii. "I think both sides were very optimistic about the potential for future engagements."
Lyons said he hopes next year's exercise, which is expected to be held in Hawaii and on the mainland, can include lower-level, soldier-to-soldier interaction in addition to exchanges among high-ranking officials.
To the best of his knowledge, Lyons said, China's military and U.S. forces have not worked side by side providing humanitarian assistance after a disaster.
But he said the weeklong trip ending Sunday included a "table top" training scenario that went farther in outlining cooperation in the event of a catastrophe.
In this case it was a fictional 7.8-magnitude earthquake striking a Southeast Asian nation, with China and U.S. military forces providing help.
Military officials discussed being in the same area and how to allocate resources as soldiers from the two countries work alongside each other.
Among the issues was preventing ports from being clogged with relief ships and avoiding duplication of efforts.
"I think we collectively were very impressed with the (People's Liberation Army's) disaster response capabilities," Lyons said during a conference call with reporters Monday.
The U.S. group included officers from U.S. Army Pacific headquarters at Fort Shafter and representatives from the Hawaii National Guard, Pentagon, State Department and Army Corps of Engineers.
The U.S. military has been seeking greater engagement with China so it can to better understand the Asian powerhouse's military intentions, particularly in the South China Sea, where shipping lanes carry much of the world's goods.
China recently caused alarm anew in the region when it announced that police would board and search ships that "illegally" enter what it considers to be its waters.
Some direct military-to-military contact with China is prohibited under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000, with exceptions for search and rescue and humanitarian assistance.
"Both armies are professional armies, and I think we have a lot of interests in common, one of which is to help people in a disaster situation, but the other currently is to maintain a stable and secure environment in the Pacific region," Lyons said.
Disaster management exchanges between U.S. Army Pacific and the People's Liberation Army have been held since 1998. Their importance has been growing through the years, with the recent trip the most "robust" yet, officials said.
The exercise was held in Beijing, Kunming and Chengdu.
"The fact that it's the next level of engagement, the fact that it's a higher level of engagement, and the fact that we all see that it's a steppingstone to further enhanced engagement I think is probably part of the reasons that it's generated a little more interest," Lyons said.