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A perfectionist pairing: German, Chinese armies end drill

Maximiliane Koschyk
July 17, 2019

German and Chinese soldiers have wrapped up a two-week joint exercise in Bavaria — the first of its kind on German soil. Maximiliane Koschyk reports from the Feldkirchen army base.

The arm patch of a solider depiciting the Chinese and German flags is seen against the Feldkirchen army base
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Weigel

Four soldiers carry a wounded comrade to a mobile operating tent as rain patters on a roof awning overhead. Inside, there are two operating tables, medical monitors, and a large cupboard containing tamponades, swabs and sterile scalpels. Without saying a word, a female soldier helps the German military doctor Sven Schläfke into his medical coat.

At the same time, a medic glues a piece of cloth with fake blood onto a patient's stomach. The medic adds paint and covers the patient's body with blue cotton sheets. Then Schläfke and his Chinese colleague Zheng, a soldier in the People's Liberation Army (PLA), head over to the operating table.

Germany and China drill together

Outside there is thunder and lightning. Schläfke explains that normally, they would now be forced to halt the surgery, as German field hospitals tents are not grounded. This means they risk being struck by lightning. But as Schläfke and Zheng are running this medical drill in a Chinese field hospital tent they can carry on, as these are partially grounded. Zheng and his fellow Chinese soldiers remain calm and everything goes ahead as normal. Then, finally, the thunder storm has passed. The sky over the German army base in Feldkirchen, just outside of Munich in Bavaria, clears up.

Combined Aid 2019
For the joint drill, consisting of medical military practice, the two armies set up a field hospital at the German base of FeldkirchenImage: Bundeswehr / Dirk Bannert

Different countries have different safety standards — and these can make the difference between life and death. Schläfke and Zheng, along with other doctors and medics from the German Bundeswehr and China's PLA, have spent the past two weeks practicing such critical situations on German soil. The joint exercise, titled "Combined Aid," involved some 90 Chinese and 120 German soldiers. In 2016, both armed forces ran a joint medical drill in China, but this is the first time that People's Liberation Army troops have come to Germany to train with the German armed forces.

The kettle incident

"It feels odd when you think about cooperating with Chinese soldiers," says Matthias Frank, a spokesperson for the Bundeswehr medical services. "They have an entirely different culture." That became clear from the kettle incident.

The story has made its way around Feldkirchen. The Germans had fitted the living quarters for their Chinese guests with kettles to make them feel at home. But when some 100 Chinese soldiers all started boiling water to make tea at the same time, the fuse blew, leaving the entire base without power. Yet aside from this incident, everyone says both sides have been getting on really well. They communicate in English and rely on medical protocols for everything else — or, if need be, on universally understood hand gestures. As doctor Zheng explains, "Inside, all bodies are all the same."

German and Chinese troops in Mali

Despite their differences, Germany and China's armies are already cooperating in the context of the international UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, one of the most difficult and dangerous UN operations on the entire African continent. Both nations contribute roughly 400 soldiers each. Only African peacekeeping nations contribute a greater number of troops.

The two armies are therefore running emergency drills to prepare them for medical situations they might face in the West African country. Today, they have set up a mock UN refugee camp in the Bavarian army base. Several mock patients lie on field cots, their faces painted white to simulate an illness. Several soldiers are pretending to be sick, too.

Nearby, microbiologists Yang Chaojie and Nicole Fiedler are using a mobile lab to test for contagious diseases. "These tests are similar, of course," Fiedler says, adding that nobody "reinvents the medical sciences." But Chinese colleague Yang does have something the Germans do not: A method for quickly identifying whether someone has cholera.

The German army's Fiedler and the Chinese army's Yang test samples for disease in a makeshift miltary lab
Yang (seated) and Fiedler (standing) practiced identifying contagious diseases from microbe probes Image: DW/M. Koschyk

Suddenly, the phone rings in the field hospital. There is a fictitious cholera outbreak in the simulated refugee camp. The hospital is transformed into a quarantine station with the goal of preventing an all-out cholera epidemic. Similar situations have already happened in real life, for example when West Africa suffered the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Lt. Col. Frank of the German medical commando explains that at the time, the German and Chinese medical field stations were located side by side, which got both sides talking. He is impressed by his Chinese counterparts: "The Chinese medical soldiers are real specialists when it comes to fighting and containing epidemics."

Read more: End of a 'secret' German military mission in Cameroon

A man puts on operating scrubs
Medics from China's PLA and Germany's Bundeswehr responded to a simulated cholera outbreakImage: DW/M. Koschyk

Two perfectionist cultures

Both sides can learn a lot from each other, as the German and Chinese troops keep reiterating. German soldiers are impressed by the PC tablet the Chinese have attached to their x-ray machine so doctors can easily view the images on-site. They are equally impressed by their compact, stowaway beds complete with medical monitors. The Chinese, in turn, expertly eye German vehicles and appreciate German accuracy. Microbiologist Yang comments on how the drill is run in a strict and orderly manner. "This is typically German for us."

While the Germans and Chinese are united in their cultural love of perfectionism, they tend to view each other critically when it comes to military matters. In late 2018, Germany's then-Defense Minster Ursula von der Leyen embarked on her first trip to China to engage in security talks. Her goal was build trust.

Joint drills like the one in Feldkirchen have been strictly limited to medical cooperation. Military maneuvers were not on the agenda. After all, delivering first aid throughout the world is already challenging enough.

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