Military-to-Military Environmental Cooperation: Still a Good Idea for China and the United StatesMarch 1, 2012 By Geoff Dabelko
As Washington begins to assess the recent visit of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to become president of China early next year, the search for ways to build confidence between the two powers is on the table yet again.
I say “yet again” because finding practical ways to build confidence was a theme after a similar high-level Chinese visit to Washington in 2009. The context then was a tense naval confrontation off China’s coast where Chinese vessels harassed a U.S. Navy eavesdropping ship. At the time, Presidents Obama and Hu Jintao said the nations’ militaries needed to find avenues to talk on a regular and ongoing basis.
Today, the context is the oft-cited pivot of U.S. security strategy towards the Pacific that has elevated politico-military dimensions alongside the dominant economic frame. While this heightened attention to the security sector may suggest less receptivity for military-to-military dialogue in some quarters, it is precisely the greater salience of security that should encourage more – rather than less – conversation.
Back in 2009, the U.S. Army War College’s Kent Butts and I suggested in The Christian Science Monitor that natural disasters and climate change adaptation posed mutual threats for both militaries and that efforts to address these threats could form the basis for such trust-building exchanges. Such engagement is not a silver bullet, nor should it downgrade the importance of other bilateral issues. But the very nature of environmental issues as shared problems, makes them able to serve as building blocks for wider cooperation.
While some may find our piece quaint in the wake of the emerging zero-sum frame for U.S.-China relations, the U.S. military in fact has a long history of using environmental dialogue as a means to building confidence – including with the People’s Liberation Army. And now more than ever is the time to see such dialogues as lifelines for open communication.
As we wrote in 2009:
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 U.S. 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 U.S. collaborated with Russia by jointly assessing the threats from radioactive waste in northwestern Russia. In the 1990s, U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”
Sources: The Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, The White House.
Photo Credit: The amphibious transport dock ship USS Denver, courtesy of U.S. Pacific Command.