Use PLA warship visit as a diplomatic tool
The Liaoning will make a port call to Hong Kong this week, a rare opportunity for the country’s military to display its prowess and attract positive publicity by allowing public tours of the aircraft carrier
The symbolic and psychological impact of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, will be apparent when it makes its maiden visit to Hong Kong. Its presence in our waters will be a show of the nation’s military might, proof of Beijing’s resolve to protect and defend, and confirmation that we are one with the mainland. But our city’s strategic location and history as a place where the Chinese and Western worlds meet also provides an opportunity for naval diplomacy. There is no better way to show transparency than giving tours of the vessel to citizens and foreign dignitaries.
Chinese warships are rarely noticed in Hong Kong’s waters, despite the People’s Liberation Army Navy South Sea Fleet having a squadron based in West Kowloon. The PLA garrison has made a point of keeping a low profile to dampen concerns about mainland interference in local affairs. But the Liaoning and its J-15 fighter jets and helicopters and support ships including two destroyers and a frigate could not make a more emphatic statement about Beijing’s commitment to protecting Hong Kong and our city’s place in the national defence strategy. There will be even greater meaning when they arrive as planned on Friday, the 80th anniversary of imperial Japan’s invasion of China.
Aircraft carriers and warships are nothing new to Hongkongers; the city has long been a favoured stopover point for foreign navies, particularly from the United States. The visits are rest and relaxation stops for sailors and marines that bring income to our economy, but the US also uses them for naval diplomacy, with crew often participating in charity and sporting events. The best publicity comes from public tours of vessels, though, and PLA personnel are often invited on board.
Public tours of the Liaoning when it moors will provide similar benefits. Scant details of the visit have so far been made, presumably because of the uncertainty of training exercises now under way. As symbolically significant as the carrier’s presence in our waters will be, much can be gained for the PLA by hosting tours to show openness, a friendly face and to improve communication with foreign powers, most importantly, the US.