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Army plans drill on Hawaii's Big Island with Chinese soldiers

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee as his nomination to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was considered on Thursday, July 11, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: November 17, 2019

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — An opening ceremony will be held Monday on Hawaii island for a military exercise with China that will involve about 100 People’s Liberation Army soldiers training alongside U.S. Army counterparts.

That comes after Adm. Phil Davidson, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, spoke on Veterans Day at Punchbowl cemetery about the “rules-based international order” that followed U.S. victory in the Pacific in World War II, and China’s attempts to usurp it.

Those American standards “are even more important today,” Davidson said, “as malicious actors like the Communist Party of China seek to redefine the international order through corruption, malign cyber activities, intellectual property theft, restriction of individual liberties, military coercion and the direct attempts to override other nations’ sovereignty.”

China was invited into the prestigious Rim of the Pacific maritime exercises in Hawaii in 2014 and 2016 — the drills are held every two years — but it wasn’t allowed to participate in 2018.

China sent a spy ship to monitor the event anyway in 2018. The rising Asian power is not likely to take part in the summer 2020 RIMPAC, either.

“China has not been involved in the planning process,” which is nearing its midpoint, said Cmdr. John Fage, a spokesman for the Navy’s 3rd Fleet in San Diego, which plans the exercise.

In recent years, the U.S. government has been more strident than ever in condemning China as a revisionist power and has taken steps to interdict Chinese espionage and influence. A bitter trade war has added to the tension.

So it makes the dwindling military-to-military exercises such as the “disaster management exchange” planned through Nov. 26 on the Big Island stand out that much more as the exception to the growing rule.

U.S. Army Pacific said the exchange with the People’s Liberation Army is part of its “Pacific Resilience” program, a series of exercises that ensures the U.S. “is prepared to assist our global partners in the event of a major disaster.”

About 100 U.S participants will join the like number of Chinese soldiers and will bring to the exercise medical, search-and-rescue and engineering personnel with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief experience, said Maj. Oliver Schuster, a spokesman for the 8th Theater Sustainment Command in Hawaii.

The event marks the 15th iteration of the exchange, which now is rotated annually between China and the U.S. Last year, U.S. Army Pacific troops traveled to Nanjing, China.

The training at Kilauea Military Camp will center on a volcanic eruption in a notional country and coordination processes between the People’s Liberation Army, the U.S. Army and a multinational coordination center, Schuster said.

“This exchange is important to maintain as it improves our ability to save lives, protect property, and better prepare for the next major disaster in the Indo- Pacific,” Schuster said in an email.

The U.S. “remains committed to maintaining military-to-military relations with China” characterized by dialogue, a commitment to risk reduction and coordination in areas of mutual interest such as disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, he said.

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2000 prohibits military-to-military engagement with China if that interaction could “create a national security risk” due to exposure to operational areas, including advanced combined-arms and joint combat operations.

Pacific Air Forces at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in May hosted more than two dozen People’s Liberation Army Air Force Command College members in a reciprocal visit that followed a trip to China in March by members of the U.S. Air War College.

“The program allows members of both militaries to tour and meet with representatives and leadership, and to share perspectives and develop lines of communication,” Pacific Air Forces said in a news release.

Mixed messages continue to be sent by U.S. officials, however.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley said Wednesday in Tokyo, “We need to continue to engage with China. China is a strategic competitor, to be sure, (but) it doesn’t necessarily mean that China becomes an adversary in the military sense of the word, or an enemy.”

But speaking at an Association of the U.S. Army conference in October, Maj. Gen. John “Pete” Johnson, acting commander of U.S. Army Pacific, was unambiguous about his focus.

“In the Indo-Pacific it is all about China. That is the threat,” Johnson said. China is creating the environment on which the Army is basing a new combat strategy. “China is very clearly seeking to dominate the region,” he said.

Carl Baker, executive director of the Pacific Forum, which provides analysis of political, security and strategic developments in the Indo-Pacific region, said opinion in America now prevails that China is a revisionist power seeking to contest the international order.

“Are they really the revisionist power? Or are we still interested in integrating them into the international order?” Baker said. “Can we find a compromise between those two? So I think that’s what you are really seeing where you are seeing the contradictions. It’s about the larger narrative.”

But even with low-level interactions like the Army exchange on the Big Island, “there’s still some people who see some opportunity for integration,” he said. “To me, it’s a hopeful sign that we’re still willing to do that, because it suggests that we can get back the idea of living together.”

The rest of Asia has already realized that “you can’t not deal with China,” he said. “China is there, it’s going to stay there, and you need to figure out a way to deal with it. You cannot contain it, you cannot resist it. It’s there, and that’s an Asian perspective, and the Americans haven’t fully accepted that perspective yet.”

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