The USS Kitty Hawk Kerfuffle and Trouble in the Strait

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The kerfuffle over China’s back and forth over whether to allow the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk into Hong Kong last week so the sailors could celebrate Thanksgiving is dying down. There was lots of speculation about what could have sparked the change of mind by Beijing, which first gave permission, then withdrew it and then changed course again, by which time the carrier was already on its way elsewhere. Some analysts thought it was payback for letting the Dalai Lama address Congress (see below for the link). Others that it was something to do with joint U.S. Japan naval exercises. In all likelihood it had more to do with the Chinese military’s own exercises in the South China Sea, exercises that were so extensive they inconvenienced air travelers in China for days and drew a protest from ever-sensitive Vietnam. What concerns me is the flip-flopping probably is caused by a lack of communication between the civilian and military authorities in China. The Foreign Ministry usually makes the decisions on port entries, and must have been pressed to change this one at the last minute by nervous generals. That someone then reacted to the negative publicity generated by images of forlorn sailors’ children left stranded on Thanksgiving Day in Hong Kong is just another sign of indecision and miscommunication. Slightly alarming, given that one of the more convincing scenarios under which a major crisis erupts is during clashing U.S. -China military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait. Those scenarios often posit some sort of rogue action by the People’s Liberation Army generals, who are widely known to think the civilians are taking a soft line on Taiwanese President Chen Shui Bian and his independence talk. They also assume some sort of miscommunication between Washington and Beijing contributing to the crisis. Let’s hope that the sort of miscommunication between Beijing and its generals that seems to be behind the Kitty Hawk affair is a one off, or it could make a potential flare up in the Taiwan Strait much, much worse.

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