U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (left) and Philippine Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin shake hands on a Marine Corps V-22 Osprey as they depart the the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) after touring the aircraft carrier as it sailed in the South China Sea on April 15, 2016.
by Jesse Johnson
U.S. Department of State East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau spokeswoman Gabrielle Price told The Japan Times on Saturday that the USS John C. Stennis and accompanying vessels were denied the visit recently.
“We were recently informed that a request for a port visit by a U.S. carrier strike group, including the USS John C. Stennis and accompanying vessels, to Hong Kong was denied,” Price said. “We have a long track record of successful port visits to Hong Kong, including with the current visit of the USS Blue Ridge, and we expect that will continue.”
It was not immediately clear what had prompted the Chinese move, but the strike group has been patrolling in the South China Sea. Beijing claims most of the waters there and has sparked concern in Washington and in regional capitals over its massive land-reclamation program. Some of the artificial islands it has created are now home to military-grade airstrips and radar installations.
On April 15, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, accompanied by Philippine defense chief Voltaire Gazmin, visited the Stennis during one of these patrols, a move widely seen as both promoting stronger defense ties with Manila and underscoring U.S. freedom of navigation concerns.
U.S. military ships and aircraft are known to make routine stops in Hong Kong, even after the return of the financial hub by Britain to China in 1997.
These visits have occasionally been halted amid periods of increased tensions, including after a midair collision between a U.S. surveillance aircraft and a Chinese plane in 2001 off China’s southern Hainan Island.
Analysts say Washington believes military ties between the two rivals are key to avoiding misunderstandings amid the increased tensions in the region.
As part of these ties, China has been invited to the U.S.-led RIMPAC exercises this summer in Hawaii. China took part in the biannual drills — the world’s largest such exercises — for the first time in 2014.
But with the Hong Kong denial, as well as a looming court ruling on Beijing’s South China Seas claims, which it has said it will ignore, there has been speculation that the RIMPAC invitation may be rescinded.
While aboard the Stennis last month, Carter had dismissed calls for China to be disinvited. “Our approach has always been to try to include everyone,” he said.
American congressmen had previously called for the invitation to be rescinded.
Still, according to Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, the Hong Kong denial “gives more ammo to the argument” for pulling the RIMPAC offer.
“But my sense is it will take more than a scrubbed port visit to derail China’s invite,” Graham said. “The U.S. government overall still regards military-to-military engagement as a positive lever and doesn’t want to cut links first.”