More than a Chinese Fit of Pique

USS Kitty Hawk, CV-63


Diplomatic friction between the United States and the People's Republic of China has grown more palpable since the US Thanksgiving. 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 US military vessels. Each year, the US Navy makes approximately 50 port calls in Hong Kong.

The events late November, 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 US 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 As the USS Kitty Hawk approached port, Chinese authorities radioed to indicate that the approval had been revoked.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 US 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 US 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.

During an exchange between President George W. Bush and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on November 28, Bush asked for an explanation for the Kitty Hawk incident. Foreign Minister Yang said that it was a misunderstanding; the result of poor communication. In some circles this explanation was accepted, while in others it was perceived as transparent and lacking.

On the same day, a Chinese missile destroyer, the Shenzhen, arrived in Japan for a peaceful and historic visit. This was the first visit to Japan by a Chinese naval vessel since World War II. The purpose of the visit was to build confidence through military to military exchange.

Two days later at a press briefing in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters that the explanation given by Foreign Minister Yang was incorrect. "We have taken note of the reports," he explained. "I want to clarify that all the reports are not true." He asserted that the Kitty Hawk incident was not the result of miscommunication, but rather a reaction to recent US actions.

Liu indicated that Sino-American relations had been "disturbed and harmed" by the US Congress' recent award to the Dalai Lama, whom China regards as a threatening separatist. It is suspected that the Pentagon's recent arms sales to Taiwan also figured into China's calculus, although Liu did not vocalize this point. He also denied that Chinese authorities had received formal protests from the American side and asserted that "there should not be such protests."

There are two possible interpretations of this comment. One is that there should not be protest because the Kitty Hawk was ultimately given permission to dock and continued to sail for Japan anyway, so the onus rests on the American side. The other interpretation is that the American government chose to give the Dalai Lama an award, and knew in advance that this would anger the Chinese government, so the American side should not be surprised that the Chinese side reacted negatively. Thus, in China's perception, there is no cause for protest. Either or both interpretations may be correct.

The Effects on Sino-American Relations

Regardless of the interpretation, the events of the last week are significant for Sino-American relations. Some observers view these events as the prelude to an era of increased friction and decreased cooperation between the two governments and their respective militaries. This view seems incorrect. It is more likely that this is a tit-for-tat scenario, in which cooperation will resume if a gesture of good faith is made.

Even if friction decreases and cooperation resumes, however, the events of the last week will still have a strong impact on Sino-American relations. The impact is highly nuanced and can best be understood by considering Washington's ability to project national power, the "responsible stakeholder" paradigm, and the balance of power in East Asia.

Washington's ability to project national power has been diminished by the events of last week. At first glance this may not seem clear, given that the US Navy has not lost any vessels or rights to sea lanes. It is not as though the US ability to project power was contingent on the USS Kitty Hawk's successful completion of operation Thanksgiving. Rather, the conclusion that Washington's power projection ability has been diminished flows from the establishment of a new precedent and the impact that this has upon future expectations.

A precedent has been established in which Chinese authorities have proven themselves willing to cancel longstanding commitments to harbor and support US military craft. Knowing this, American military planners will no longer design operations that require support from China. In certain scenarios, this may have the effect of limiting Washington's freedom of action within multiple regions.

In the ongoing policy dialogue of Sino-American relations, a recurrent theme is the "responsible stakeholder" paradigm coined by Robert Zoellick. The paradigm asserts that China is benefiting tremendously from the global system, and as such has a responsibility to support that system. When China undertakes some action that is deleterious to the established order, critics charge that China is not behaving like a "responsible stakeholder." When China undertakes some action that is supportive of the established order, proponents assert that China is making an effort and moving toward becoming a "responsible stakeholder" and, therefore, Western governments should exercise patience. The dialogue between the two camps is often colored by this language.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has stated that recent events were a natural reaction to US overtures, but this position is difficult to justify. One of the few respected rules of the sea is that when a vessel is in trouble (i.e. facing a storm or running low on fuel), assistance is provided first and details sorted out later. China violated this rule by denying assistance to the USS Patriot and USS Guardian. In future policy dialogues, references to this incident will certainly be manifest and may make the arguments of China's critics more forceful than those of its advocates.

Regarding the balance of power, the events of the last week are a clear indication that a change is occurring in East Asia. Expressed in the simplest terms, the US Navy is losing the ability to dock in Chinese controlled territories while the Chinese navy is gaining the ability to dock in Japanese territories. The frontier of the American sphere of influence is regressing, while the frontier of the Chinese sphere of influence is growing outward.

At a deeper level of analysis the change in the balance of power is even more evident. The USS Kitty Hawk is considered a significant vessel by the Chinese. The ship provided indispensible support to the campaign in Afghanistan, to which China, along with other member states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, has taken a clear stance of active disapproval. To the Chinese government, the USS Kitty Hawk is symbolic of Washington's role in Afghanistan and presence in Central Asia.

The USS Kitty Hawk is also symbolic of another long standing disagreement. In 1994, the Kitty Hawk was instrumental in putting down tensions between Taiwan and the mainland. Ever since 1998, the Kitty Hawk has been the flagship in US efforts to maintain peace across the straits. As a result, to the Chinese government the USS Kitty Hawk is also symbolic of Washington's extended deterrence for Taiwan.

Given that the Kitty Hawk symbolizes Washington's presence and dominance in China's backyard, the rejection of the Kitty Hawk and concurrent expedition to Japan must be viewed as changes in the balance of power in East Asia. The extent and consequences of these changes are unclear at the present time. However, if these questions are to be understood in the future, the answers will most likely be gleamed from analysis of events in Taiwan, Japan and the Spratley Islands. If the spheres of influence are indeed shifting, any repercussions will be evident in these domains, which are situated at the threshold of the two spheres.

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations.