U.S. eyes humanitarian drills with Chinese military

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States hopes to conduct its first ever humanitarian disaster relief drills with the Chinese military in late 2009 or 2010, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command said on Wednesday.

Admiral Timothy Keating said he and Lt. Gen. Zhang Qinsheng, a senior commander of the People’s Liberation Army, had agreed to begin “active consideration the formulation of a plan that will lead to humanitarian assistance exercises relatively soon.”

The U.S. military, which has long sought to engage China’s fast-growing but secretive armed forces to avoid clashes in the Pacific, had held search and rescue and signaling drills with the Chinese, but never full disaster relief exercises, Keating told an audience at the Heritage Foundation.

Keating hosted Zhang, commander of China’s Guangzhou Military Region, at PACOM headquarters in Hawaii, where the Chinese official was able to observe the initial staging of the nine-nation biannual RIMPAC military exercises, he said.

Talks on the humanitarian exercises would likely get under way early next year aimed at holding one set of land-based disaster relief drills in each country within 15 and 18 months, Keating said.

The Pacific Command helped cement ties with the Chinese military by sending two C-17 cargo planes carrying chain saws and generators to help relief work in the Sichuan earthquake in May, following earlier help with Chinese ice storms, he said.

Reporting by Paul Eckert; Editing by David Wiessler