'Taiwan the real reason' US ships sent away

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 December, 2007, 12:00am

Taiwan is the main cause behind Beijing's refusal to let another US Navy ship make a port call in Hong Kong, a source close to the situation has said.

The Pentagon on Friday revealed that a request by the frigate Reuben James to make a New Year's holiday stop in Hong Kong was denied by Beijing last week.

It was the third time in recent days that Beijing had turned away a US Navy ship from Hong Kong.

'It planned to go through the Taiwan Strait on its way to Hong Kong. Beijing wouldn't allow such a sensitive move during the period leading up to next year's Taiwan election,' said the source, who works for the national security agency in southeast Fujian - the military frontier province closest to Taiwan.

The denial of visiting rights for the US frigate was contained in the same notification that Beijing delivered on November 22, in which it reversed a previous decision and gave permission for the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk to dock in Hong Kong over the Thanksgiving holiday, a US defence official said. No reasons were given for this latest rejection, he said.

The Kitty Hawk did not dock in Hong Kong, leaving many of the crew's relatives and friends high and dry in the city where they had travelled to meet the ship.

The Foreign Ministry yesterday said it had no further information on the Reuben James and reiterated Beijing's policy on US warship port-call requests, namely consideration of sovereignty and 'circumstances in each individual case'.

The US minesweepers Patriot and Guardian were also turned away last week from Hong Kong when they sought fuel and shelter from a storm.

The news about the Reuben James came just a day after what appeared to be efforts by both countries to cool down the Kitty Hawk row.

Hong Kong-based military expert Andrei Chang said Beijing's reason for rejecting the Reuben James was likely to be the same as that for denying port access to the Kitty Hawk and the two minesweepers - recent US sales of technology allowing Taiwan to upgrade its anti-missile defences.

In the light of President Chen Shui-bian's call for a referendum on joining the UN under the name of Taiwan, and also in the run-up to Taiwan's presidential election in March, the decision to sell such arms was considered sending 'the wrong political signal to Taiwan', Mr Chang said.

Since 1999, US aircraft carriers have always appeared in Hong Kong whenever tensions rose. The Kitty Hawk, in particular, was sent to the city on the day Taiwan held its 2004 presidential polls and referendum against China's use of missiles.

PLA specialist Milton Liao Wen-chung from the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taiwan thought that the reason for the rejection was a large-scale PLA drill, involving everything from aircraft to submarines, along the southeastern coast between November 17 and 25.

The arrival of the US warships would not only be interpreted by Beijing as a demonstration of US ability to respond to a crisis in the strait, it would also have inconvenienced the drill, he said.