Wave of mixed signals as U.S. ship is snubbed

LETTER FROM CHINA
By Howard W. French
Published: December 7, 2007
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
SHANGHAI: Ships are not supposed to turn on a dime, especially American aircraft carriers that travel in large convoys.
But that’s exactly what happened with the USS Kitty Hawk as it approached Hong Kong for a long-scheduled Thanksgiving visit.
Hours before the ship was to dock, with the families of many of the crew members having flown to Hong Kong for reunions, the Chinese authorities notified the U.S. Navy that permission to dock had been revoked.
Surprised by the measure but eager to salvage something of the holiday, the Kitty Hawk made a quick U-turn and steamed toward Japan, saving time and returning China’s slight by sailing through the narrow Taiwan Strait, which the United States regards as international waters but China claims as its own.
Before the battle group had reached that point, though, the Chinese authorities radioed again announcing a change of mind: for “humanitarian reasons,” the Kitty Hawk would be welcome after all.
There would be no repeat U-turn this time, although the saga of the Kitty Hawk was, in fact, just beginning, and would come to involve an even more surprising flip-flop.
The U. S. Navy, whose ships make 50 or so port calls in Hong Kong each year, was incensed by what it saw as China’s bad form. The Pentagon must have been puzzled by the incident too, coming just two weeks after a visit to Beijing by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, during which the two sides agreed to establish a hotline between the two military commands and spoke of other ways to strengthen ties and build confidence.
“Mr. Cao and I discussed ways to build on positive momentum in our defense relations and how to use the interactions to improve communications and reduce the risk of misunderstanding,” Gates told the press after meeting with Cao Gangchuan, the Chinese defense minister.
When President George W. Bush personally asked the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, for an explanation of the Kitty Hawk incident during a visit to Washington, the White House said, Yang answered that it had all been a “misunderstanding” and the result of just the kind of “poor communications” that Gates and Cao had said they had agreed to eliminate.
Niceties like these have a long enjoyed an honored place in diplomacy, papering over differences and letting dark clouds blow past. Two days later, however, the niceties were exploded by Yang’s nominal subordinate, Liu Jianchao, a spokesman who denied the foreign minister had said anything like that at all.
“We have taken note of the reports,” Liu said. “I want to clarify that all the reports are not true.” He went on to assert that the Kitty Hawk incident had had nothing to do with miscommunication, which at least had the virtue of truth, even if it left many big questions unanswered, including: Who is in charge of Beijing’s security-diplomatic apparatus during moments like these?
Liu ascribed the last-minute port call about-face to China’s anger over the Dalai Lama’s visit in October to Washington, where he had been received by Bush and given a Congressional Gold Medal. At that time, the very same spokesman had fumed that “this move is a blatant interference in China’s internal affairs. It has hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and gravely undermined bilateral relations.”
Later, and most unusually, the spokesman’s comments on the subject failed to appear on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site, where a record of each day’s commentary is regularly published.
Trying to make sense of Beijing’s actions, others quickly speculated about anger over a recent anti-missile arms sale to Taiwan. Still others spoke of large-scale, unannounced Chinese naval maneuvers simulating a pincer action against Taiwan, which were under way just as the Kitty Hawk drew near to Hong Kong, as a possible reason for the Chinese decision to keep the ship out of its waters.
Official media here observed a news blackout about the drills, even as they disrupted hundreds of commercial flights out of Shanghai and Guangzhou and angered neighboring Vietnam.
China has a right, of course, to be upset over both issues, Tibet and Taiwan, but one wonders if throwing fits about the Dalai Lama, in particular – as Beijing has done repeatedly in recent months – is in any way serving the country’s interests.
More seriously, at precisely the moment when China is projecting power and influence like never before, the handling of the Kitty Hawk matter highlights grave weaknesses for an incipient superpower: the lack of the kind of transparency essential to international confidence and an unwieldy decision-making process, with subterranean divisions over turf, that bodes ill for crisis management.
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