USS Ronald Reagan carrier group to visit Hong Kong as China holds out olive branch to America

  • US strike group heading to city after visit by senior PLA commander amid drive to ease tensions ahead of Trump-Xi meeting
  • Two months ago China had refused to allow US warship to berth in city as trade war escalated
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2018, 8:24pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2018, 1:57pm

An American carrier strike group led by the USS Ronald Reagan was heading to Hong Kong on Tuesday following a visit by a senior People’s Liberation Army commander as the two sides aimed to soothe months of tensions.

Military analysts said the fact that the ships had been given approval to dock on Wednesday indicated that Beijing was trying to calm things down ahead of a meeting between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump at the G20 summit at the end of the month.

In September China denied a request by the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp to make a port call in the city.

On Tuesday, Lt Gen Tan Benhong the commander of the PLA garrison in the city, and other officers were invited to land on the deck of the carrier as it sailed towards Hong Kong.

The officers, accompanied on a C-2 military transport plane by a small group of local journalists, were welcomed on board and invited to watch the US navy’s F-18 Super Hornet Fighter jets performing a take-off and landing exercise.

“It is a friendly gesture made by the Chinese side to let the USS Ronald Reagan visit Hong Kong before the scheduled meeting between President Xi and President Trump in Argentina,” Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said.

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“Everyone in China is hoping for a ceasefire after the two leaders meet in Buenos Aires in two weeks’ time, because trade has brought great economic benefits.”

The USS Ronald Reagan has been involved in a training exercise with a second carrier group – led by the USS John C Stennis – in the western Pacific over the past week or so, according to the US Navy.

The John C Stennis was itself denied permission to dock in Hong Kong a couple of years amid a dispute over the South China Sea, another major area of contention between the two countries.

At the end of September an American and Chinese warship came within metres of colliding as the US carried out a “freedom-of-navigation” exercise near waters China claims as its own.

But Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said it was a “good sign” China was learning to be more flexible in the sphere of military diplomacy and was allowing the Ronald Reagan to berth.

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Hong Kong, a former British colony, now has a degree of autonomy, but defence and foreign policy matters are reserved to the central government in Beijing, which must approve visits by foreign warships.

The website of the Hong Kong Marine Department said the US naval flotilla would arrive in Hong Kong waters between 9am to 1pm on Wednesday.

Besides the carrier, there will be two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the USS Curtis Wilbur and USS Benfold, as well as the USS Chancellorsville, a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser.

The USS Ronald Reagan is the most advanced Nimitz-class carrier, with a displacement of 120,000 to 130,000 tonnes.

The nuclear-powered vessel can carry up to 90 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and is able to simultaneously launch four F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters on catapults.

The carrier, which is currently based in Yokosuka, Japan, previously visited Hong Kong in October last year.