Five US warships docked for a port call in Hong Kong yesterday in a sign that recent tensions between China and the US may be easing after flare-ups over an arms sale to Taiwan and a meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Carrying about 5,000 sailors, the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and four other ships arrived in Hong Kong waters for a four-day rest stop after spending five months in the North Arabian Sea as a base for air combat missions in Afghanistan, the USS Nimitz public affairs office said in a statement.
Political analysts see Beijing’s approval of the port call as an indication that the Chinese government doesn’t want to let Sino-US relations deteriorate further, hampering cooperation on the global economy and other issues.
With its abundance of foreigner-friendly restaurants, bars and shops, this former British colony has long been a favored stop for US warships, and Beijing has continued the tradition after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule.
China blocked a long-scheduled port call by the USS Kitty Hawk in November 2007 at the last minute, denying thousands of sailors a Thanksgiving reunion with families and friends who had flown to the city. Some analysts viewed the move as retaliation after the US Congress awarded its highest civilian honor to the Dalai Lama.
Yet Beijing has allowed the USS Nimitz carrier strike group to stop in Hong Kong — despite a threat to suspend military-to-military exchanges after the recent approval of an arms sale to Taiwan. It also hasn’t followed through on another threat to retaliate against US companies involved in the sale.
The commander of the strike group declined to comment on the politics behind the port call yesterday.
“For us, this is a routine port visit,” Rear Admiral John W. Miller told reporters. “We requested the port visit through normal channels and we’re certainly delighted that we received permission from [China’s] Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be able to come in.”
It’s unclear if Chinese military officials based in Hong Kong will visit the US warships. Miller said he would be hosting a reception on the ships yesterday evening, but referred questions about the guest list to the US consulate general in Hong Kong. Consulate general spokesman Matthew Dolbow said it is policy not to reveal guest names.
The visiting US sailors will tour Hong Kong Disneyland, the neighboring Chinese gambling enclave Macau and the southern Chinese cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the USS Nimitz said in a statement.
“Hong Kong is a vibrant city and a favorite port of call for our sailors,” Miller said. “We look forward to an enjoyable stay here.”
The USS Nimitz, which is based in San Diego, California, is traveling with the USS Chosin, the USS Pinckney, the USS Sampson and the USS Rentz.