China-US relations

US Navy visit raises hopes of calm waters before Xi-Trump talks

  • Hong Kong port call by an aircraft carrier battle group is welcome as Washington’s trade war against China rages, and both sides have gone out of their way to make friendly gestures
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2018, 5:38pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2018, 9:59pm

Welcome though goodwill port visits from the United States Navy may be in Hong Kong, they require approval on a case-by-case basis from Beijing. It is not always forthcoming. Refusals from time to time reflect bilateral tension between the rival powers, which has been stoked recently by the US trade war against China and increasingly confrontational rhetoric from American Vice-President Mike Pence.

Beijing’s green light for the entry of an aircraft carrier battle group in time for Thursday’s American Thanksgiving celebrations, and a significant reciprocal gesture from the US side, are more than usually welcome. Ahead of President Xi Jinping’s high-stakes summit with President Donald Trump alongside the G20 meeting at the end of next week, the visit is a potential circuit breaker for the pessimism clouding prospects of a positive outcome.

China extended an olive branch by granting a port visit for the group led by the carrier USS Ronald Reagan, fresh from exercises in the western Pacific. The US reciprocated by inviting People’s Liberation Army garrison commander Lieutenant General Tan Benhong and other officers to land on the carrier’s deck as it sailed towards the city. The visitors were in time to watch a take-off and landing exercise by F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters.

Analysts see the reciprocal gestures as an attempt by Beijing to ease tensions ahead of the summit, and evidence of Washington’s desire to maintain military ties despite strategic tensions and the trade war. In particular, the departure from usual practice by the Americans of not waiting until arriving in Hong Kong before inviting the PLA garrison commander aboard was a friendly gesture that can help build understanding between the two sides.

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Contrasts were obvious, firstly between cold war-style rhetoric and the reality of building confidence through military-to-military contact, and also with Beijing’s refusal in September to allow a port visit by the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp.

Hong Kong, as a traditional high-profile venue for naval port calls and, more recently, friendly military contact, plays a subtle role as a barometer of highs and lows in the bilateral relationship.

The welcome to the US Navy for this visit revived memories of the 2007 Thanksgiving holiday and Beijing’s last-minute decision to deny access to the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and its escort ships, spoiling reunions with families and friends who had flown in. Bilateral tension then was partly attributed to a US Congressional Gold Medal being awarded to the Dalai Lama. This time, thankfully, the political and economic urgency of a breakthrough in the trade conflict has outweighed other bilateral tensions in granting the visit.