TACOMA, Wash. — The month after a U.S. Navy warship sailed by an artificial Chinese island in the contested waters of the South China Sea, the Department of Defense is reaching out with a friendlier gesture.

The Pentagon picked the Army's Joint Base Lewis-McChord as the site of a week-long exercise for both U.S.soldiers and troops from the Chinese People's Liberation Army, The News Tribune reports.

It will be the first time ground-level Chinese soldiers visit an Army base in the continental U.S. for a military-to-military exercise, although they will not participate in combat training.

"It's a big deal," said Timothy Heath, a China expert at the Rand Corp. "It's a sign of an improving security relationship that needs more stability. This is a good sign. We need exercises like this to promote stability."

About 80 Chinese soldiers are expected to visit the South Sound base for a series of medical drills to help them prepare for a humanitarian crisis. Starting Monday through Nov. 21, the troops will practice preparations for natural disasters.

"Despite our differences with China, we can still work together and come together to work on common challenges, such as natural disasters and humanitarian crises," said Lt. Col. Jason Shelton.

Shelton, who is coordinating the exercises, says troops will focus on how to help civilians in a severe earthquake, a natural disaster both the Northwest and China could face.

The exercises come as the Puget Sound area is increasing connections with China. President Xi Jinping visited the region in September and Chinese investors have proposed a hotel next to Tacoma's convention center.

China is also Washington state's largest export market.