China's Decision to Deny U.S. Ships from Port of Hong Kong

Posted in China , United States | 09-Dec-07 | Author: Richard Komaiko

Diplomatic friction between the United States and the People's Republic of China has grown more palpable during the past week. A series of high profile events involving the port of Hong Kong have unfolded on the international stage, leaving observers, political analysts and military planners contemplating the significance of these incidents.

A Changing Arrangement

In 1997, as Great Britain was preparing to cede sovereignty over Hong Kong to China, an agreement was negotiated to maintain Hong Kong's status as an international hub of freight traffic, allowing vessels to dock regularly and in a fairly liberal fashion. China was given the right to reject individual port calls; in return, Western negotiators were given assurances that this right would be exercised infrequently and that in general port calls would be approved promptly. For the most part, this arrangement has proven successful. Every year, multitudes of vessels originating from all around the world flow into the port of Hong Kong. Among them are U.S. military vessels. Each year, the U.S. Navy makes approximately 50 port calls in Hong Kong.

The events of last week, however, indicate that commitment to this arrangement may not be robust. On November 20, two navy minesweepers, the USS Patriot and USS Guardian, were performing routine patrol missions in the South China Sea when a weather storm descended upon them. Both ships were also running low on fuel. They sent an emergency request to Chinese authorities to dock at Hong Kong in order to weather the storm and refuel. The request was denied. The two ships were forced to stay out at sea.

Another incident centers around a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk. The Kitty Hawk and the five support vessels that travel with her were scheduled to dock in Hong Kong on November 21, one day before Thanksgiving. The arrangements for this port call had been worked out well in advance, and the Chinese authorities had granted approval. As the USS Kitty Hawk approached port, Chinese authorities radioed to indicate that the approval had been revoked. In order to salvage some part of the holiday, the USS Kitty Hawk turned and sailed for Japan, where approval would be certain. Some time later, Chinese authorities radioed again to say that approval had been re-granted. Yet, by this time, the Kitty Hawk was well on her way to Japan and could not afford to turn back.

On the same day, two other events transpired. Chinese authorities sent a communiqué to the U.S. Department of the Navy to inform them that the pending request for the USS Reuben James to dock in Hong Kong on New Year's Day had been denied. Chinese authorities also sent a communiqué to the Department of State to inform them that they were rescinding permission for the planned landing of an American C-17 cargo plane, which comes to Hong Kong quarterly in order to stock and support the U.S. Consulate. At the time, no explanation for any of the preceding events was offered. The relevant American authorities lodged formal protests with their Chinese counterparts.

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