China Port Power Play

Article excerpt


The dispute between the United States and the People's Republic of China over calls by U.S. warships at Chinese ports illuminates three troubling aspects of military relations between the two Pacific powers:

*Fragility: Military exchanges between the U.S. and China are easily disrupted because each sees them differently. For American officers, they are an attempt to preclude miscalculation leading to war. For Chinese officers, they are power tools for manipulating the United States.

*Ignorance: The Chinese, partly isolated by Western and Japanese powers for a century, have little understanding of the world outside China. In one case, they ignored a longstanding tradition of the sea and in another needlessly deprived 300 U... S sailors of family reunions

Disarray: Mixed signals from China suggest a lack of communication between the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which includes all of China's armed forces, and the Foreign Ministry. After the PLA turned the U.S. ships away, the diplomats tried unsuccessfully to patch things up.

China's civilian leaders, beginning with President Hu Jintao, are believed to want stable military relations with the United States so they can attend to pressing political and economic problems, such as unemployment. The PLA, however, sees U.S. forces as the enemy and thus has little incentive to strive for good relations.

A grudging balance appears to have been struck. The PLA reluctantly deals with the United States and slows the pace whenever it can. The civilian leaders, in turn, need the support of the PLA to stay in power and thus are reluctant to oppose the military leaders.

The current wrangle started just before Thanksgiving when the PLA abruptly said the aircraft carrier 82,000-ton Kitty Hawk and accompanying vessels could not sail into Hong Kong on a long-planned visit.

About 300 members of families of the crews had flown at their own expense from Japan, where the ships are based and crew families live, to Hong Kong to celebrate Thanksgiving. That distance is about that between New York and San Francisco and airfare alone cost about $500 a person.

Later, it turned out the Chinese had also refused entry of two smaller ships, the 1,250-ton, wooden-hulled minesweepers Patriot and Guardian, when they sought to escape a storm at sea. …