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One way to boost US-China military cooperation

Environmental issues offer fertile common ground for building confidence and relations.

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Deeper environmental engagement with China would capitalize on both militaries' prior experience. From the late 1990s through the George W. Bush administration, the People's Liberation Army joined the US military, as well as India and Pakistan, for multilateral conferences on climate-change adaptation, disaster preparedness, and earthquake response. These initial efforts emphasized common practices on military installations. It is now time to build on this foundation to address broader environmental concerns.

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The US military's well-developed sustainability programs offer numerous platforms for joint dialogue on lowering ecological footprints, greening operations, and reducing health risks to military personnel. In addition, US and Chinese militaries should jointly assess the security implications of climate change that concern both sides: rising sea levels, changing precipitation patterns, uncertain migration scenarios, and instability in resource-rich regions.

Joint training exercises on natural disasters, run through Pacific Command, could help prepare both forces for coping with extreme Katrina-style events. Finally, the militaries – both enormous energy consumers – should collaborate on joint research programs aimed at improving fuel efficiency and using alternative energy for bases and noncombat transportation fleets.

While some might question China's willingness to participate in these activities, the recent tête-à-tête between Mr. Obama and Mr. Hu Jintao signals the eagerness of both sides to launch such military initiatives. The Chinese army has previously indicated a willingness to broaden its cooperation with the US and other regional militaries to address environmental security issues. This shared prior experience with similar environmental programs would support a relatively quick implementation through the existing Pacific Command Theater Security Cooperation program, either multilaterally or bilaterally.

Environmental security issues – and climate change in particular – could be among the most productive avenues for US-China military cooperation. The world's largest per capita emitter (the United States) and its largest total emitter (China) of greenhouse gases should identify specific areas for cooperation before the upcoming climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark. Lowering the temperature of this relationship would vastly improve not only our ability to adapt to rising sea levels, but also to avoid dangerous incidents in midair or on the high seas.

Kent Hughes Butts is director of the National Security Issues Branch in the Center for Strategic Leadership at the US Army War College. Geoffrey D. Dabelko is director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program. The views expressed above are the authors' and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations.