US confirms carrier port visit, but China vague

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 February, 2010, 12:00am

The US consulate in Hong Kong yesterday confirmed that the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier battle group would visit Hong Kong next week but Beijing was ambiguous about whether it had approved the visit.

In a press invitation sent out to media outlets in Hong Kong yesterday, the consulate said the carrier was scheduled to arrive in the city on Wednesday.

But Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a written reply to a South China Morning Post query that 'the Chinese government is handling the application from the US side in accordance with relevant procedures'.

Aside from journalists, Hong Kong-based People's Liberation Army officers and foreign ministry officials have been invited aboard the Nimitz as part of the normal round of social events surrounding US ship visits.

Asian military attaches said it was hard to see how Beijing could avoid sending anyone, having approved the visit.

'And let's face it, PLA officials love the opportunity to visit aircraft carriers ... it is just not in their wider interests to snub an opportunity like this,' one diplomat said. 'But if they do send someone, it will technically be an exchange whether Beijing likes it or not, so we can really see that the statements over the arms sales [to Taiwan] are not really that serious.'

Protocol means the host navy is shown considerable respect.

At previous functions aboard US carriers in Hong Kong, PLA naval officers have been greeted by the sight of a huge Chinese flag hanging alongside the Stars and Stripes on the hangar deck. Pentagon officials have long stressed the importance of such visits to help build trust and transparency between the two nations' armed forces.

The port call surprised military observers as Beijing only recently vowed to suspend planned military exchanges and impose sanctions on US companies in protest at US arms sales to Taiwan over the past two months.

The arms sales added to a range of issues - from a likely meeting between US President Barack Omaba and Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to trade frictions - that have recently strained Sino-US ties.

US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman wrote in a commentary published yesterday in both the Chinese and English editions of Global Times, a government-backed newspaper run by People's Daily, that the two countries 'cannot' and 'must not' allow disagreements to negate aspects of the bilateral relationship that were critical to the region and the world.

'There are real differences between our two nations; differences in interests, differences in values, differences in approaches to issues both at home and abroad. But more noteworthy are our common interests and the increasingly common approaches that have developed with the maturing of our relationship,' he wrote.

Nimitz's port call next week will coincide with the Dalai Lama's visit to the US. His spokesman, Tenzin Taklha, said yesterday that the 75-year-old would be in Washington between February 17 and 18.

Richard Hu Weixing, director of the department of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, said although it was unlikely and against international protocol for China to reverse its decision, 'it's still possible that the port call could be cancelled at the last minute if Beijing gets irritated by Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama'.

'The message behind this arrangement [approval of the port call] is that Beijing wants to redefine the rules of the game,' he said.

'In the past Beijing always had to follow Washington's rule. It wants to be in control of what activity can be held and what has to be cancelled.'

Peng Guangqian , a PLA major general and a strategist at the Academy of Military Science, said Beijing's approval of the port visit signalled China's intention to show its sincerity about improving ties.

'But I think the difficult time in Sino-US relations has not gone,' Peng said.

A Shanghai-based retired PLA senior colonel, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hong Kong's status as a special administrative region made it easier for Beijing to decide whether to approve the port call.

'Nimitz is going to visit Hong Kong, a special administrative region, which is not as sensitive as Shanghai, Dalian or other mainland ports,' he said.