A US aircraft carrier sailed into Hong Kong yesterday amid heightened tension between Washington and Beijing over arms sales to Taiwan and President Barack Obama's plan to meet the Dalai Lama.
The port call by the USS Nimitz, one of the world's largest warships, came as a surprise to many military observers only weeks after China said it would suspend military and security contacts with the US over Washington's $6.4-billion arms package to the island.
"Hong Kong is a vibrant city and a favorite port of call for our sailors. We look forward to an enjoyable stay here," John Miller, commander of the carrier, said in a statement.
More than 5,000 sailors from the carrier and its four accompanying ships will be sent ashore for sightseeing and community services projects during the four-day visit, the statement said.
The port call was not a recent idea, according to sources familiar with the situation, which means that China approved the plan before the US announced its arms sale to Taiwan in January.
Even so, many military analysts were surprised because China could have cancelled the visit at the last minute.
Pang Zhongying, an expert on international studies with Beijing-based Renmin University of China, said that the approval of the port call is "a strong signal" sent by China to the US of its sincerity in developing bilateral relations.
Xu Guangyu, a retired People's Liberation Army (PLA) major general, told the South China Morning Post it was unlikely that Beijing would have approved the visit unless two countries had made compromises.
Hong Kong-based military attaches said they would watch the USS Nimitz visit closely to see whether Beijing sent PLA officers to functions on board the ship.
Typically US naval brass host parties aboard during port calls in honor of their host nation.
"Technically a routine ship visit is not really a military exchange ... but all the rest of the activities surrounding it could be seen that way," one Asian military attache told SCMP. "It will be a good way of detecting how serious China is really pushing this."
Phone calls made by China Daily to PLA garrison troops in Hong Kong went unanswered yesterday.
While US warships have long made periodic port calls to Hong Kong, Beijing has denied entry to US warships into Hong Kong at politically sensitive moments.
In 2007, the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk was denied entry to Hong Kong as it neared the city's waters.
China suspended military-to-military exchanges in 2007 after President George W. Bush's administration announced an arms sale to Taiwan.
AFP - China Daily
(China Daily 02/18/2010 page1)