US consul general extends hand of friendship to China aboard USS Ronald Reagan and emphasises desire to ensure stability in the region

  • People’s Liberation Army personnel and local lawmakers visit aircraft carrier
PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 10:38pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 11:53pm

The United States’ top diplomat in Hong Kong welcomed Chinese officials and People’s Liberation Army personnel on board the visiting USS Ronald Reagan on Friday night in a celebration of friendship, but his underlying message asserted his country’s right to patrol regional waters and maintain its military presence.

“The United States seeks to be a friend and partner of every nation in the region, in order to ensure stability, and with the aim of promoting free commerce and shared prosperity,” US Consul General Kurt Tong said, addressing an audience that included the PLA’s Hong Kong garrison chief of staff He Qimao and other officers, as well as local lawmakers.

“The alliances that the United States has maintained in this region over decades, together with our forward-deployed military and our diplomatic presence, all contribute to maintaining stability in the Indo-Pacific.”

Tong stuck to the term “Indo-Pacific” instead of “Asia-Pacific”, in keeping with US President Donald Trump’s strategy of acknowledging India’s importance to counter China’s dominance over the region.

The diplomat described the ship they were holding their gathering on as “a 100,000-tonne demonstration of America’s historical and continuing commitment to the Indo-Pacific”.

The port call by the USS Ronald Reagan came after the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp was denied entry into Hong Kong waters in September.

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The approval for this naval visit was seen as an attempt by Beijing to ease tensions before a critical meeting between President Xi Jinping and Trump at the coming G20 summit, against the backdrop of the US-China trade war.

Hong Kong PLA garrison commander Lieutenant General Tan Benhong and other officers were invited on board the USS Ronald Reagan while it sailed towards Hong Kong on Tuesday, in what was interpreted by analysts as Washington’s desire to maintain military ties despite the trade war and broader strategic tensions.

The atmosphere on board was warm and friendly on Friday night as military personnel and civilian guests from both sides mingled and chatted with each other.

“Whether we are combating piracy, or fighting transnational crime, or working to denuclearise the Korean peninsula, the United States will continue to cooperate with all willing and sincere partners,” Tong said.

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He also hailed Hong Kong’s older relationship with the US Navy, noting that its first vessel to make a port call on the city was the USS Constellation in 1842.

“Our vision for the Indo-Pacific has been open and the same,” he said, summing up Washington’s message to the region.

“A vision of open ports and open doors, and of stability and free commerce, with all nations committed to an open and fair architecture for commerce in the Indo-Pacific.”

Wilson Chan Wai-shun, lecturer at Chinese University’s Global Studies Programme, said Tong had taken the opportunity to highlight America’s desire for fair play in economics and open ports by delivering his speech in Hong Kong, a city the US felt had both.

“Tong recalling 100 years of the US presence in Hong Kong implied the US never left the region,” Chan said, “and that Hong Kong is always part of the Indo-Pacific strategy.”

Tong’s mention of an “open and free architecture for commerce” was directed at China’s trade barriers, and echoed the US belief that trade should come with liberal values, Chan added.

He noted, however, that Tong’s mention of a disaster management exchange event in Nanjing between the two sides last week showed the US had not yet shut the door on China.

“The US wants military cooperation with China,” Chan said.