Warships can, and often do, play diplomatic role

China’s aircraft carrier the Liaoning paid an important visit to Hong Kong and should have welcomed aboard the many foreign envoys working in the city

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2017, 3:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2017, 3:02am

Hong Kong was an important port call for the Liaoning, China’s aircraft carrier. There was symbolism in its five-day visit to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule. Its stay was about prestige, patriotism and power projection. But as the impressive vessel and its support ships left yesterday, it was a pity its potential to be a diplomatic tool was not better utilised.

Has Beijing missed the boat for hearts and minds?

China has no city that’s more international than Hong Kong, making our waters the perfect place for the world to view the Liaoning. The carrier group is the pride of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, a mark of the nation’s growing strength and an early show of its desire to develop a blue-water fleet. That plan raises concerns among neighbours and rivals, particularly those contesting territorial claims. With the vessel now on regular training exercises in the region and two more carriers under construction, there is every need to allay concerns through transparency.

Thousands of Hongkongers were given that opportunity with tours of the Liaoning and its three escort vessels. An initial ban on taking photographs was lifted and access to the carrier’s flight deck, with several J-15 fighter jets and helicopters, was also eventually allowed. Defence systems apparently perceived as too sensitive for viewing remained covered, though. The PLA is still getting to grips with the concept of public relations, but it is learning and the more confident it gets, the more open it will be about its operations.

Hongkongers flock to view the pride of China’s navy

Foreign navies, the US in particular, well know the worth of combining warship visits with diplomacy. Hong Kong, as a major port and international city with more than 100 consulates, a number with military attaches, is therefore an important stopover. The US has made a practice of inviting PLA officers on board its carriers during visits, a courtesy and a means to improve military-to-military cooperation. The opportunity was not taken up with the Liaoning.

Aircraft carriers will be a key strategic asset for China, protecting overseas interests while supporting international obligations such as during natural disasters. As those needs grow, so will the desire to increase trust and understanding. Hong Kong can play a vital role.