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China, US look past tensions with joint humanitarian relief drill

China and the United States wrapped up a three-day humanitarian relief military drill on Friday, looking past simmering tensions over the disputed South China Sea and the deployment of an advanced US anti-missile system in South Korea.

The exercises, held in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, came a month after a US navy destroyer sailed near islands claimed by China in the South China Sea, prompting fury in Beijing which called the moved illegal and provocative.

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That patrol, the latest by Washington to challenge Chinese claims in the strategic waterway, capped a tense year for military-to-military ties between the world’s two largest economies, which are also at odds over the US decision to base the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system battery system in South Korea as a defence against North Korea.

China, which neighbours North Korea, is worried the system’s radar will be able to track its own military capabilities.

New uncertainly looms with the shock election of Donald Trump as US president earlier this month, a man who lambasted China on the campaign trail and has suggested Japan and South Korea be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.

Yet it was all smiles and friendship as Chinese and US soldiers simulated digging out bodies from an earthquake-destroyed building and rescuing people from an overturned boat in a reservoir.

Liu Xiaowu, the PLA commander of the Chinese southern military region, and General Robert Brown, commanding general of the US Army Pacific, chatted amiably as they oversaw the last day of exercises.

“Very smart, very good,” Brown said, as Chinese officers explained how they were using new technology, including drones, in the drill.

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Jeremy Reynolds, a US army captain based in Hawaii, said the exercise was a unique opportunity for the two to work together.

“The execution of the exchange went very well between the Chinese and the American forces,” he said standing on a pontoon bridge.

“We were able to communicate very well through interpreters. There were no major issues.

“The Chinese did a very good job planning their portions of the exercise and it led to very smooth operations in a very good overall product.”

“These operations do help to create a mutual understanding between our two militaries.”

This is the fourth time China and the US have conducted such drills since they began in 2013, as the two try to set aside mutual suspicion from the bottom up, rather than just relying on contacts at a more senior level.

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The exercise involved 134 military personnel from China and 89 from the United States, using helicopters, pontoon bridges and engineering equipment.

They also conducted table-top exercises focusing on sharing information and joint decision-making, field manoeuvres focusing on evacuation of earthquake victims and search and rescue.

“We had very happy cooperation with the United States. I was really happy,” said Chinese army doctor Zhao Yao.

“This was the first time I’d met the US military. The exchange with them has really helped my English.”