Thursday, December 13, 2007

Behind the Kitty Hawk Spat

US, Chinese hold military talks amid strains over port calls
by Andrei Chang
Hong Kong (UPI) Dec 3, 2007

Senior US and Chinese defense officials opened two days of security talks here Monday amid strained relations over Beijing's denial of US naval visits to Hong Kong. The Chinese government late last week formally notified the Pentagon that it is refusing a request for a port call in Hong Kong over the New Year's holiday by the guided missile frigate USS Reuben James, a Pentagon spokesman said. "It is hard to believe that is not a topic of ongoing discussion," spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters, referring to the naval visits.

Top US military officials expressed surprise and anger last week after China abruptly cancelled a long-planned Hong Kong port call over November 21-24 by the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and its battle group. Officials said Beijing also turned away two minesweepers seeking refuge from a storm and a US military flight to resupply the US consulate in Hong Kong, sparking one of the sharpest diplomatic rows since 2001. Whitman said the defense consultative talks had long been scheduled, and the fact that they are being held shows that the Defense Department wants good military relations with Beijing. "The United States Defense Department values this relationship and are only going to try to strengthen it through dialogue with their Chinese counterparts," he said. Agenda items include US-Chinese military relations, global and regional security issues, the war on terror, and missile defense, he said. Eric Edelman, the undersecretary of defense for policy, is leading the US delegation.

The Chinese delegation is led by Lieutenant General Ma Xiaotian, the People's Liberation Army's deputy chief of general staff for foreign affairs. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Beijing in early November, and called for greater US-Chinese military contacts and a longer term strategic dialogue to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculation. Relations between the two powers have been colored by a Chinese military buildup that the Pentagon believes is aimed at thwarting US intervention in a conflict over Taiwan, and ultimately challenging its access to the region. US suspicions intensified in January after a Chinese anti-satellite test in which a ballistic missile was used to destroy a Chinese weather satellite in low Earth orbit. Top Pentagon officials have warned that China will be able to disrupt US military satellites in a regional conflict within three years.

Ever since former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui put forward his two-state theory in 1996 -- implying that Taiwan and China were separate states -- the U.S. aircraft carrier battle group has quickly made an appearance in Hong Kong whenever tensions arose in the Taiwan Strait. The appearance of the USS Kitty Hawk has marked particularly significant occasions, compared with visits by other aircraft carriers. On March 6, 2004, ahead of Taiwan's presidential election and a referendum on whether the island should acquire anti-missile weapons to defend itself against mainland China, it was the same Kitty Hawk that visited Hong Kong.

There are strong signals that Beijing's refusal to permit the Kitty Hawk to enter Hong Kong for the Thanksgiving holiday had to do with the U.S. decision to sell Taiwan an upgrade to three sets of Patriot II ground-to-air missiles, with a price tag of approximately $930 million. The decision was announced by the U.S. administration right after Defense Secretary Robert Gates' visit to Beijing on Nov. 5.

First of all, from Beijing's perspective, the timing of the announcement was sensitive. The U.S. approval of the sale ahead of Taiwan's March presidential election and referendum on joining the United Nations sends Taipei the wrong signal, in Beijing's view.

Second, the upgraded Patriot II technology is intended to boost Taiwan's capability to intercept ballistic missiles, and Beijing thinks this procurement will undermine strategic stability in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing is consistently sensitive to such arms sales to Taiwan.

Thirdly, the U.S. decision to sell arms to Taiwan immediately following a top-level military visit to China is out of line with the traditional Chinese mindset. To Beijing, this was a serious betrayal and a huge loss of face.

Some have speculated that President Bush's meeting with the Dalai Lama was a factor in China's decision to block the Kitty Hawk from Hong Kong. Beijing is taking an increasingly hysterical stance on the danger of simultaneous crises over independence erupting in Tibet and Taiwan. Nonetheless, this doesn't appear to be the root cause of Beijing's decision. China's behavior has been consistent over the past 10 years of U.S.-China interactions. Ever since former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping introduced the strategic principle of reducing friction with the United States, Beijing has held that political tensions should be handled by political means, economic conflicts should be resolved through economic means, and the Taiwan issue should be treated as a regional security matter. Tibet has never been an issue in the U.S.-China military and strategic relationship. Japan also received the Dalai Lama this month, and yet the PLA navy's No. 167 guided-missile destroyer visited Japan last week as originally scheduled.

Why would Beijing then change its mind and grant last-minute permission for the Kitty Hawk to enter Hong Kong, and why did the United States respond by refusing this offer?

The relationship between major powers is sometimes like that between a man and a woman; there is a constant struggle for dominance. The USS Kitty Hawk had already arrived in Hong Kong waters when Beijing denied berthing permission. Beijing's message was simple: The United States cannot take its welcome for granted; it should not forget that China holds decision-making power in this part of the world. Having sent that message, it could then allow the ship entry on "humanitarian grounds."

On the other hand, Washington's decision not to anchor the Kitty Hawk after this reversal sent the message that the United States is not to be trifled with. The United States then retaliated against Beijing's snub by sailing the aircraft carrier group through the Taiwan Strait on the way to its home port in Japan. Since the beginning of this year, this writer has warned on several occasions that the situation in the Taiwan Strait is at its highest risk since the end of the Cold War; it is relaxed on the surface but extremely tense underneath.

It happened that the Kitty Hawk's appearance in the area coincided with large-scale joint exercises between the Chinese air force and navy in the vicinity of Taiwan. The People's Liberation Army's air force was conducting an unprecedented fighter transfer exercise with the East and South China Sea Fleets, the largest such war games so far this year. As many as nine airports, including those in Shanghai and Guangzhou, were under military aviation control from Nov. 18-25. Nearly 10,000 passengers were stuck in airports across the region as hundreds of commercial flights were postponed during the exercises.

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It is worth noting that these exercises were conducted simultaneously in both the Nanjing and Guangzhou military regions, obviously aimed at practicing coordinated combat operations between the two commands. Almost all the crack air force units of the two regions were involved. Controlling such a large fleet of aviation units with a traditional Soviet-style ground-based command system would be virtually impossible. Thus, it was no surprise that Chinese Internet bloggers claimed they saw KJ200 AWACS in the air space over Shanghai, Nanjing and Wuxi, which would have allowed effective coordination and command from the air.

Also in mid-November, the PLA navy's South and East Sea Fleets held a large-scale joint exercise involving guided-missile destroyers and frigates and at least three Type 022 missile boats in a series of concerted operations. The fleet comprised the navy's crack systems and the exercises called for coordinated use of its best weapon systems. The navy's new-generation battleships are fitted with tactical data link systems, giving them an improved ability to coordinate combat operations.

As tensions remain high in the region, China is readying itself for any challenge. Under these circumstances, the military spat between the United States and China sends a warning from each side to the other not to act rashly.

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