One way to boost US-China military cooperation

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

Recently, the Defense Department warned that lack of Chinese transparency and dialogue between the Chinese and US militaries could lead to dangerous miscalculations on both sides. The tense confrontation between a US Naval survey vessel and five Chinese ships in the South China Sea in March echoed the rather serious 2001 Hainan Island incident, which was characterized by mutual suspicion and public acrimony. That event affected US-China relations for years. [Editor’s note: The original version mischaracterized the Hainan Island incident.]

To avoid further incidents, the Defense Department desires "deeper, broader, more high-level contacts with the Chinese," said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell. The White House issued a statement stressing the "importance of raising the level and frequency of the US-China military-to-military dialogue," and President Obama quickly laid the groundwork by meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in London and agreeing to work to improve military-to-military relations.

One such way to begin military dialogue between the United States and China is by using environmental issues.

Environmental collaboration is unlikely to hit politically sensitive buttons, and thus offers great potential to deepen dialogue and cooperation. Military-to-military dialogue can facilitate the sharing of best practices on a range of environmental security issues. It can help both nations and their regional partners prepare for natural disasters – which are expected to intensify in a warming world – and improve the ability of civilian agencies and militaries to adapt to the impacts of climate change. It can also develop personal relationships that can provide deeper understanding in times of crisis.

For nearly two decades, the US military has used environmental engagement as a key strategy to reduce tensions and improve relations with both adversaries and friends. In the wake of the cold war, the US collaborated with Russia by jointly assessing the threats from radioactive waste in northwestern Russia. In the 1990s, US Central Command conducted exercises with the newly independent Central Asian republics to address natural disasters and the environmental legacy of the Soviet era. In 2001, Gen. Tommy Franks, then commander of US Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee, "While environmental factors can easily trigger conflict, cooperation on these issues can promote regional stability and contribute to the ongoing process of conflict resolution."

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.

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.

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