Thursday, February 11, 2010

China approves US carrier visit to Hong Kong

Is this a small step to move the Sino-US relations back to "normal"?
China approves US carrier visit to Hong Kong

WASHINGTON, Feb 11 (Reuters) - China has cleared a U.S. aircraft carrier to visit Hong Kong next week, U.S. officials said on Thursday, despite its announced plan to trim contacts to protest the latest proposed U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

"We have received clearance from China for the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to visit Hong Kong in the near future," said Matthew Dolbow, spokesman for the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said: "We are pleased that Hong Kong port calls are continuing."

The visit would mark a concession from Beijing, at odds with Washington over the arms sales as well as Internet controls and hacking, trade and currency issues and an imminent visit to Washington by the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, who will meet President Barack Obama.

A Navy spokesman at the Pentagon confirmed the Chinese foreign ministry had approved the visit to the former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The administration sent its latest proposed Taiwan arms sale package worth $6.4 billion to Congress at the end of last month. Congress has 30 days to act on it, after which the sales may proceed.

In response, the official China Daily newspaper said the deal would "inevitably cast a long shadow on Sino-U.S. relations."

Included in the U.S. plan are United Technologies Corp (UTX.N) UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters, Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) and Raytheon Co (RTN.N) Patriot Advanced Capability-3 antimissile missiles, enhancements to Taiwan's command control communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, two refurbished Osprey-Class mine-hunting ships, and Boeing Co (BA.N) Harpoon telemetry missiles.

In addition to scaling down security relations and curtailing dialogue, Beijing has said it would sanction U.S. firms that sell weapons to Taiwan.

Senior Chinese military officers have proposed that their country boost defense spending and possibly sell some U.S. bonds to punish Washington for its latest round of proposed arms sales to Taiwan.

It was not immediately clear when Beijing granted the clearance. The port call had been in the works for some time, according to sources familiar with the situation.

Navy Chief Petty Officer Palmer Pinckney, aboard the Blue Ridge, command ship for the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet based in Yokosuka, Japan, said by telephone: "We have diplomatic clearance" for the visit by the nuclear-powered Nimitz, based in San Diego. Beijing has been known to deny entry to U.S. warships to Hong Kong at politically sensitive moments.

In 2007, the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk was denied entry to Hong Kong as it neared the city's waters.

China suspended military-to-military exchanges in 2007 after President George W. Bush's administration announced the previous U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.

Senior U.S. officials have urged China to maintain military-to-military contacts, partly as a hedge against misunderstandings or accidents at sea that could spiral.

(Reporting by Jim Wolf in Washington and James Pomfret in Hong Kong, editing by Philip Barbara and Alan Elsner)

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