China rejects US warship's visit to Hong Kong as tensions rise

File photo of amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) as it transits the Strait of Magellan, on Dec 10, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - China rejected a request by a US warship to make a port visit to Hong Kong next month, officials from both nations said on Tuesday (Sept 25), as tensions between the two countries flared on military as well as economic fronts.

The cancellation of a planned visit by the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship carrying a contingent of Marines, followed China's decision to recall a senior admiral who was in the United States for a naval conference this week.

Both actions were prompted by a Trump administration decision to impose sanctions on a Chinese state military company linked to the People's Liberation Army for buying weapons from Russia. Although the economic impact of the US action on the Chinese remains unclear, the vehemence of Beijing's response suggested that the move stung.

The mounting military tensions came only three months after Defence Secretary Jim Mattis visited Beijing pledging "to keep our relationship on the right trajectory".

Instead, the relationship appears to be veering wildly off track as an escalating trade war becomes conflated with broader concerns in Washington about China's policies.

The administration's actions have coincided with aggressive steps by President Donald Trump to impose tariffs on Chinese products. That has fuelled the sentiment in Beijing that the deterioration of relations was not about trade policy as much as blunting China's emergence as a world power.

Even as news of the cancelled port call became public, China's foreign ministry strongly denounced the Trump administration's announcement of a new sale of US$330 million (S$450 million) in military equipment to Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy that Beijing claims as part of a united China.

Although the equipment amounted to spare parts for aircraft and other equipment, and was less significant than previous packages approved by the Trump and Obama administrations, it signalled a return of routine arms sale with Taiwan.

Taiwan's Foreign Ministry welcomed the sale, saying on Twitter that it would enable the island "to maintain a robust self-defence".

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the sale threatened to cause "severe damage" to relations with the US, including "bilateral cooperation in major fields". The US no longer formally recognises Taiwan but has maintained close relations and is committed by law to help the island defend itself - much to the anger of China.

China appeared even more stunned by the decision to punish the state military company. The Trump administration announced last week that it would impose sanctions on the Chinese military's Equipment Development Department and its director, Mr Li Shangfu, for purchases of Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia.

He and the company were among 33 entities targeted under a law enacted by the US government last year to punish Iran, North Korea and Russia for behaviour hostile to the US.

In the case of Russia, the act is intended to punish its military actions in Ukraine and Syria and interference in the 2016 US election.

In response, Beijing summoned US ambassador Terry Branstad over the weekend and has since continued a steady drum beat of criticism in the state news media.

Chinese officials have repeatedly said that military cooperation with Russia - including the purchase of sophisticated weaponry - is in compliance with international law, which is true. The collateral damage appears to be the Pentagon's hopes for sustaining contacts with the Chinese military.

The US consulate in Hong Kong confirmed China's refusal to allow the Wasp to visit but did not elaborate on the reasons behind it.

"We have a long track record of successful port visits to Hong Kong, and we expect that will continue," a spokesman said in a statement, declining to be identified in keeping with State Department policy.

Mr Geng, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, deflected a question about the cancelled port visit but said China considered requests case by case, in keeping with the country's sovereignty.

Although the Chinese and US militaries have long been rivals, exchanges and port visits - which combine diplomacy and public relations with much needed shore leaves for sailors and Marines - have been common over the years.

Last year, the USS Sterett, a guided-missile destroyer, visited one of China's most sensitive naval bases, in Zhanjiang in southern China.

Such visits have, nonetheless, been subject to the ups and downs in the countries' relations.

In 2016, a planned visit to Hong Kong by a US aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, was rebuffed at a time when the Obama administration was becoming increasingly frustrated with China's expansion of artificial islands in disputed territory in the South China Sea.

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