Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Port Call Barometer

One of the more accurate barometers of the current state of Sino-American relations has been port visits by US Navy vessels to Hong Kong. In the ten years since Hong Kong’s return to China, warships flying the Stars and Stripes have vastly outnumbered those flying China’s red ensign.

That has mirrored the generally positive and stable status of bilateral relations during this period. Until last month the Chinese had temporarily denied port visits on only two previous occasions. The first in 1999 was after the US Air Force accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

The second came in 2001 after the collision of a US Navy spy plane and a Chinese MiG off China's southern coast. Both occasions were certifiable crises, and both were smoothed after a short while over with expressions of regret and the port visits resumed.

That makes the latest brouhaha over the cancelled visit by the USS Kitty Hawk and its support group and the earlier denial of shelter to two US Navy minesweepers a few days earlier all the more puzzling.

After all, Sino-American relations are on a reasonably even keel, pardon the nautical term. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had only recently had a friendly and productive visit to Beijing. The fracus came, ironically, as the Chinese Navy made its first friendly port call in Japan.

It should be noted that Hong Kong is not now and never was, even under the British, a base, such as Sasebo in Japan or the former Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines. There are few if any permanent shore facilities. It is a liberty port pure and simple, a convenient place for a break in the long voyage from the Middle-East to Japan.

A couple hundred dependents of the crews had flown to Hong Kong in anticipation of spending the Thanksgiving holiday in Hong Kong with their loved ones, which is one reason why the Defense Department is sorely pissed that the visit was canceled so abruptly – or why no succor was afforded to the minewsweepers despite being in a tropical storm.

But rather than being any kind of accurate gauge of bilateral relations, this looks to me to be, to borrow from my former British colleagues, like a royal cock up on the part of the Chinese

After all, the Chinese abruptly canceled the visit, then cancelled the cancellation (though too late for the ships to turn back) then denied that they had cancelled the cancellation. What gives?

My former colleague at Asiaweek, Willy Lam, now with the Jamestown Foundation, may provide a clue not mentioned in other news accounts. He reports that the Chinese began large-scale naval exercises in the South China Sea on November 19 – one day before the minesweepers were denied entry.

It is plausible to assume that the Ministry of Defense did not want a large contingent of American naval vessels hanging around these waters during their maneuvers. It is equally plausible that they didn’t bother to inform the Foreign Ministry, which handles Hong Kong ship visits, until rather late.

Now, to save face, the Foreign Ministry has concocted an ex-post facto rationale by complaining about Washington’s recent decision to sell Taiwan an up-graded version of the Patriot missile and the recent hospitality extended to the Dalai Lama.

But these are garden variety irritants that usually invoke only pro-forma protests from Beijing. My guess is the thing was a big muddle by Beijing and that the Stars and Stripes will be seen again in Hong Kong harbor.


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