Maj. Gen. Stephen Lyons, left, of the U.S. Army Pacific, and Maj. Tang Fen of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) shake hands at the end of a two-day military exercise at a PLA facility in Chengdu, China, on Nov. 30. (Peter Parks / The Associated Press)
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HONOLULU — The leader of an Army delegation to a disaster-relief exercise in China last week said Monday that the drills are a stepping stone to building relationships between the two militaries.
Both the Chinese and U.S. armies prefer peace over conflict and have a common interest in maintaining regional stability, said Maj. Gen. Stephen Lyons, commander of the 8th Theater Sustainment Command.
It sends a powerful signal to other nations in the region to have the Chinese and U.S. armies understanding and working together, he said.
"We never want to put these nations in the region in a position where they have to choose between siding with China or siding with the United States," Lyons told reporters during a conference call one day after he returned to Hawaii. "Our interests in the region are inextricably linked. We only prosper when we can work together. Both presidents, all the senior leadership of both nations, have said that."
Relations between the two militaries have fluctuated in past decades, since the Chinese crackdown on democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Most recently, military relations were frozen in 2010 after the U.S. announced a $6.4 billion weapons sale to Taiwan. They began improving a year later after then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Beijing.
The U.S. is closely watching how China is modernizing its military by adding stealth fighter jets, an aircraft carrier and other sophisticated hardware to its arsenal.
China claims this is purely for defense, although its neighbors see it as adding bite to its territorial claims off its east coast and in the South China Sea.
Chinese coastal patrol and fisheries ships have pushed the Philippines away from a disputed South China Sea shoal and harassed Japanese coast guard vessels near contested East China Sea islands. U.S. naval and aerial reconnaissance close to China's shores has at times been challenged by Chinese ships and planes, risking clashes.
China has said it's merely defending its sovereignty with these actions.
Disaster relief is an area where the two nations share a common purpose, Lyons said. He said the U.S. can use this to build relationships between the U.S. Army and the People's Liberation Army.
For next year's meeting, which the U.S. will host, the two countries discussed getting more junior level officers together, holding a command post exercise and traveling to New York to see places affected by Superstorm Sandy.
Last week's exercise involved about 20 U.S. soldiers meeting with about 20 Chinese soldiers for two days in Chengdu to discuss how the two countries would respond to a hypothetical earthquake in a third country. U.S. soldiers also visited an area in Sichuan that was struck by a major earthquake in 2008.
The militaries of the two countries have had on-and-off meetings on disaster relief since 1998. This year, for the first time, they discussed how they would respond to a disaster together.