Amid a global pandemic and simmering tension between the U.S. and Beijing, American troops and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army are holding remote training on humanitarian disaster response.

The U.S. troops at Schofield are joining Chinese troops across the Pacific to talk with expert academics and work through how to address a crisis scenario from Tuesday through Thursday.

It’s the 16th iteration of the Disaster Management Exchange, an annual training event that began in 2005 as the two militaries began discussing how they would cooperate in response to a major disaster. The exercise, which has alternated between being held in the U.S. and China, initially began as a meeting between senior officers.

Gary Wiegand from the State Civil Defense K-9 Unit discusses search and recovery with members of the People's Liberation Army. Soldiers from United States Army Pacific, Hawaii Army National Guard and Army Corps of Engineers along with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will participate with the People's Liberation Army in a Academic Disaster Management Exchange. The 2013 DME is a U.S. Army hosted subject matter expert exchange focused on an international Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief operation. Both U.S. and PLA demonstrate equipment used during HA/DR operations Nov. 14.
Gary Wiegand from the Hawaii State Civil Defense K-9 Unit discusses search and recovery with members of the People’s Liberation Army during the 2013 Disaster Management Exchange on Oahu. Gary Wiegand/U.S. Army/2013

The rival militaries held their first practical field exercise in Hawaii in 2013 when Chinese troops and Hawaii National Guardsmen trained at Bellows Air Force Station. Each year the training became larger and more complex as troops searched through simulated rubble and practiced search and rescue techniques, frequently working with civilian agencies as well.

Last year, Chinese troops returned to Hawaii as the PLA trained with the 25th Infantry Division on the Big Island. This year’s small online engagement is considerably scaled back.

The Disaster Management Exchange is the only uninterrupted engagement between the U.S. and Chinese militaries. The Chinese Navy attended the biennial RIMPAC in Hawaii in 2014 but was disinvited in 2018 amid rising tension.

“This long-established exchange is executed to support the U.S. efforts to build a constructive, stable, and results-oriented defense relationship with the PLA,” an Army press release said Tuesday.

Both militaries have responded to natural disasters in real life, occasionally coordinating. Chinese peacekeepers and American troops cooperated in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The U.S. and Chinese military also both responded to the 2015 Nepal earthquake.

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