The Nelson Report, the Washington insider report, gives the point of view of Beltway insiders on the recent flap over the recent problems with the visit of the carrier Kitty Hawk to Hong Kong:


US-CHINA…let’s start with the bad news. You saw last week that Beijing embarrassed itself by completely mishandling a long-planned Hong Kong courtesy call by a US carrier…first canceling, then lamely trying to reverse the verdict on “humanitarian grounds”.

By then it was too late, PACOM commander Keating had already reversed course, and, we understand, bad weather meant the most prudent track back up to Japan lay right through the Strait of Taiwan.

We are assured by official sources that weather really was the reason for this politically interesting route…it was not a “right back at you” from the Navy, even though there’s no question that the admirals are plenty steamed-up about Beijing’s actions.

(We say “Beijing” because under the Basic Law, Hong Kong Authorities have absolutely no decision-making authority on the substance involved here…foreign policy, and military to military relations. This whole game was played out in Beijing.)

Adm. Keating allowed as how he was “perplexed” by China’s screw-up. He was being polite. Every serious China player we know, including likely officials in a Democratic presidential administration starting in ‘09, had the same reaction we did…this is bad news on multiple levels.

First, the action and reversal indicates, once again, a weak, inconsistent command and control system at the very top levels of Chinese leadership. As with the ASAT shoot-down earlier this year, and the EP-3 incident in 2001, it shows that you can’t always count on the senior political leadership to be on top of the PLA leadership, except to react to bad decisions.

“We have no ‘incidents at sea’ agreement with China, even though this helped keep the peace with the Soviets for a generation; we still don’t have more than an alleged decision on a ‘hot line’; ‘transparency’ is almost entirely one-way, especially on exchanges”, was the “indictment right off the top of my head, since you ask”, from one likely senior player in a Democratic Administration.

Sources in Beijing say the Hong Kong cancellation was made because of Chinese pique at the US announcement of PAC-2 upgrades for Taiwan, and that the reason China was angry was an alleged failure by Defense Secretary Gates to brief them on the upcoming decision while he was in Beijing.

Experts here say the PAC-2 upgrades have long been in the works, and that even if Gates didn’t give a specific “FYI”, China’s hitting out at the US Navy was not simply out of proportion, it shows a systematic failure of analysis on the part of the PLA. Both Adm. Keating, and CNO Adm. Roughead have both visited China this year, among many Navy efforts with Beijing.

As one defense analyst argues, “the Air Force is using ‘China rising’ as its main ’sales pitch’ reason for future long-range bombers, but the Navy, despite China’s talk of a ‘thousand ship navy’, has taken a calculated path of out-reach and cooperation, whenever possible, and the Navy is assiduously working to engage China in maritime security cooperation.”

In fact, we’d note, that’s the title of a conference set for Dec. 5-6 at the Naval War College, with many important PLAN and other officials invited. Whether these senior Chinese will be allowed to attend is still, apparently, an open question. Other sources note that back in October, apparently to show Beijing’s displeasure over the Congressional Gold Medal subsequently personally handed the Dalai Lama by President Bush, China cancelled “a whole slew of mil/mil activities, although unlike the Hong Kong decision, this was done quietly”, we’re told.

Since then, “there are a lot of delegations going back and forth”, so perhaps next week’s conference will be a chance for the authorities in Beijing to demonstrate to the US Navy, at least, that it does “get it” and is serious about reciprocating in a fashion appropriate to a mature power.

As one email read last week, over the Thanksgiving break, “the Chinese really don’t seem to understand that military-to-military relations are important in and of themselves, and as a critical component of keeping the peace. No one is naive here, obviously, about ‘friendship’, but if China continues to play mil/mil as just a cheap, signal-sending game, and refuses to understand the strategic importance of what we’re offering them, this should concern every government in Asia as much as it does us.”


UPDATE: The Kitty Hawk issue is not the only thing the Navy is concerned about, according to AFP:

Admiral Gary Roughead, the chief of US naval operations, said he was even more bothered by China’s refusal to allow two small US minesweepers to enter Hong Kong last week to avoid a tropical storm and refuel.

“As someone who has been going to sea all my life, if there is one tenet we observe it’s when somebody’s in need, we provide, and we sort it out later. That to me was more bothersome,” Roughead told reporters here.

He said the navy sent a tanker ship to refuel the minesweepers, the USS Patriot and the USS Guardian, which then proceeded to their homeport in Sasebo, Japan.

He called China’s actions “surprising and unhelpful.”

Roughead said the Chinese have given no reason for the action. He said denying US navy ships port calls at Hong Kong was unusual although not unprecedented.

Keating said the incident with the minesweepers was “very unusual.”

“Those two minesweepers were engaged in an operation, not against China, but out in international water, and a storm blew up and they needed to get into a place of refuge. And you know, Hong Kong’s nearby and it’s a great place to go,” he said.

“So, for the Chinese to have denied those two ships in particular, small though they may be, that is a different kettle of fish for us, and is in ways more disturbing, more perplexing than the denial for the Kitty Hawk’s port visit request,” he said.

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