USS Essex arrives in HK in sign of easing tension

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 November, 2010, 12:00am

American warship the USS Essex began a four-day port call in Hong Kong yesterday with a high-profile invitation to the city's media to tour the vessel, a signal that suggests Sino-US military relations might be warming up after nearly a year of turmoil.

Beijing has severed military contacts with the United States since February following Washington's decision to sell US$6.4 billion worth of arms to Taiwan. The relationship has been further strained as the US tries to boost its presence in Asia, commenting on disputed waters and holding joint military drills with South Korea off China's eastern shore.

A meeting between US Defence Secretary Dr Robert Gates and Chinese counterpart general Liang Guanglie in Vietnam last month was the first step to putting ties back on track. Gates accepted an invitation to visit China early next year - he originally expected to visit this June.

However, patching up will take time: even though the US navy extended an invitation to media to tour the vessel, US officers said there would be no contact with the People's Liberation Army garrison during the stay.

'This is a purely regulation port visit for us ... We do have a reception tomorrow on board for the embassy on the behalf of the American ambassador and myself,' USS Essex fighting group captain Mark Weber said. No PLA or Hong Kong officials had been invited.

Hong Kong has for decades been a popular port for the US navy both for maintenance and recreation. Since the handover, applications for port calls have had to be made to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, although such port calls remain routine, they have encountered problems on several occasions during times of tension. Just last month prior to the Gates-Liang meeting, US naval officers cancelled a visit by aircraft carrier the USS George Washington to Hong Kong for what they said were operational reasons.

The USS Essex resembles a small aircraft carrier, and is the only permanently forward-deployed US amphibious assault ship, serving as the flagship of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group. It carries transport and attack helicopters, jets, trucks, Humvees, amphibious assault craft, and over 2,200 sailors and marines.

Although the warship has visited Hong Kong before, yesterday was the first time it invited media aboard. The US navy arranged for two American-Chinese sailors to brief the press.

Eric Tan, 26, a Guangzhou native and American sailor who moved to the US with his family when he was 12, said he was happy to come to Hong Kong: 'I am very happy because it's my last time working for the USS Essex. I will miss my days on board and my visits to Hong Kong.'

Mainland scholars on Sino-US relations said the unusual arrangement could be interpreted as the US trying to send friendly signals amid warming military ties and a scheduled visit by President Hu Jintao to the United States in January.

'Sino-US relations rarely affect the US navy making port calls in China,' Professor Shi Yinhong of Renmin University said. 'But under the circumstances both sides might want to be more proactive to create a good atmosphere.'