Tensions on the Korean Peninsula will be in the spotlight today as People's Liberation Army officers tour three American naval ships visiting Hong Kong.
Officers aboard the USS Peleliu, an amphibious assault ship in port with the landing vessels USS Rushmore and USS Green Bay, played down any connection between their Hong Kong stopover and North Korea's recent threats, but agreed the matter might be raised when they hosted members of the local PLA garrison.
"I certainly would not rule that out," said Captain Shawn Lobree. "That's a major event now in world affairs and it could come up." He said the port call - involving 4,000 sailors and marines - was routine and not meant to send any particular message.
Last night a spokesman for the PLA Hong Kong garrison acknowledged receiving the invitation and said officers would attend the reception on board. He hoped such interaction would improve mutual understanding.
The Peleliu group carries the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which has been based in the Middle East and off Africa in recent years. Amphibious assault ships are some of the most sensitive naval vessels, given their potential in a wide range of scenarios.
The visit comes weeks after the PLA Navy showcased one of its new assault ships in 16 days of exercises in the South China Sea. The Jinggangshan was equipped with marines, helicopters and hovercraft, and raised eyebrows across the region when it headed to China's southernmost claimed possession, the disputed James Shoal off Malaysia, in a show of strength 1,800 kilometres from the mainland coast.
The US visit comes amid increased American naval activity in the region. As well as recent drills with South Korean allies, US vessels were involved in annual exercises off the Philippines earlier this month. US ships are also due off Da Nang in central Vietnam next week for exchanges with the Vietnamese military.