“Beating a dog in the water” is a Chinese expression meaning “exploiting the disadvantageous position of an opponent to gain the upper hand”.
I think that’s what’s going on with the Kitty Hawk affair.
As his been widely reported, the Chinese abruptly withheld approval for the Kitty Hawk carrier group’s Thanksgiving port visit to Hong Kong.
President Bush called some PRC diplomat to the White House to express his displeasure and the White House announced that the whole thing had been a misunderstanding.
That, I think, was the U.S. government’s big mistake. It laid us open to an embarrassment that we should have seen coming a mile away.
The Chinese fired back with a statement that the snub had been intentional, and triggered by U.S. sales of $940 million worth of Patriot missile stuff to Taiwan.
From the New York Times:
Beijing also said today that Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had not told President Bush in a meeting Wednesday that the decisions to deny the ship visits were a “misunderstanding,” as the White House had reported after the talks.
“Reports that Foreign Minister Yang said in the United States that it was a misunderstanding do not accord with the facts,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said in Beijing today, adding that China had “grave concern” over United States weapons sales to Taiwan.
The Chinese clearly wanted to make a point with the Kitty Hawk—and make it publicly.
And to have the Bush administration flinch–and trout out a lame, concocted excuse that the Chinese briskly and completely rebutted—makes it looks like the truth about what’s going on in the west Pacific is something that the PRC is ready to deal with, but the U.S. is unwilling to confront.
As a belated riposte, the Kitty Hawk made a big deal of sailing through the Taiwan Strait.
I think there’s something different and greater at stake than complaining about Patriot missile sales or President Bush’s grip and grin session with the Dalai Lama.
What I think is at stake here is whether the United States has the right to treat the western end of the Pacific as its private lake—or whether it needs Chinese agreement to sail in the new “Red” sea.
The symbolism of the Kitty Hawk snub would be rather apt.
The Kitty Hawk is a Cold War relic, the last conventionally-powered aircraft carrier in the U.S. fleet, the only carrier group based abroad—at Yokosuka, Japan—whose most recent mission was a big joint exercise with the Japanese practicing sinking (presumably Chinese) submarines.
The Thanksgiving trip was meant to be part of the Kitty Hawk’s final victory lap around the west Pacific before it sails to the United States for decommissioning early next year.
What better way to signal America’s retreat from Asia and declare that the U.S. naval presence in the waters near China is contingent upon Chinese sufferance than denying the Kitty Hawk a graceful, triumphant exit from the scene?
The United States is quite serious about Hong Kong port visits.
As I wrote in March, the U.S. Navy engaged in a frantic scramble to rush (or, in its terms, “surge”) the nuclear carrier Ronald Reagan to visit Hong Kong in place of the John Stennis, which was being redeployed to the Middle East.
If you think the USN jumped through all these hoops to send a carrier 10,000 miles to Hong Kong so its sailors could have the opportunity to party in Wanchai instead of San Diego, there’s a big bridge I’d like to sell you.
In August, the Nimitz visited Hong Kong and was welcomed—though, perhaps significantly, it is based in San Diego and not Japan.
Then, the Kitty Hawk goes to Hong Kong to make a point—that the U.S. is an indispensable and inescapable presence in the Pacific—and this time the Chinese wanted to make exactly the opposite point.
I’ve previously argued that the objective of China’s naval build up is not to slug it out with America’s Seventh Fleet, or create a deterrent to U.S. intervention opposing a Chinese move on Taiwan.
The Chinese do intend to use military power for Taiwan reunification, but only to demonstrate to Taipei the advantages and inevitability of coming to terms peacefully with the dominant power in the west Pacific.
And the true inauguration of the Chinese century—if it’s really coming—will be marked by the arrival of the Chinese navy at Taiwan—during a peaceful, invited port call.
By this reading, the strategy is to establish the Chinese navy as the credible security guarantor (in superpower parlance) for the smaller Pacific nations falling within its economic sphere–or biggest bully on the block in the west Pacific in blunter terms–to a line extending out to the “second line” Pacific Island chain.
A Chinese navy with reach—but not necessarily hyper-power sized technology or muscle– removes the “the world can’t accept a power vacuum out here” justification for a forward U.S. naval presence in the region, which currently conducts massive exercises in Asian waters on anti-piracy, disaster relief, and near-shore interdiction missions that seem better suited to the Coast Guard.
Whittling down the justification for a massive U.S. naval presence in Japan to Taiwanese security would put the United States and Japan in the awkward position of admitting we are keeping a carrier group in the western Pacific only for confronting the PRC.
Since the United States is officially committed to a one-China policy and we don’t appear ready to characterize our dominant supplier of socks, underwear, and lead-based toys as a our strategic enemy, this would at the very least create some diplomatic and propaganda awkwardness for the U.S.
In a riposte to the Rumsfeld-era unctuousness of “we can’t understand why the PRC is conducting a military build-up”, the Chinese could say, “we can’t understand why U.S. and Japan are maintaining a carrier group in North Asia; our fleet has matters well in hand here.”
“And, in fact, we made it clear in November 2007 that you guys can’t just sail around here like you own the place.”
So the Kitty Hawk’s replacement, the George Washington, will cruise to take up its station in Japan next year under a cloud.
I expect that there will be some of what I characterize is “muscular handwringing”. That’s the pundits’ version of “concern trolling”, framing a decision or position we don’t like as evidence that the people doing it are pathetically deluded dingbats.
In the Kitty Hawk situation, that would take the form of more sorrow than in anger tsk-tsking that the PRC’s civvy-suited Communist leadership is being led down the wide avenue to destruction by reckless elements in the PLA who are endangering China’s aspirations to responsible stakeholderism in the world system.
For the reasons above I, on the other hand, consider the Chinese move to be a rather savvy one, exploiting an important opportunity to advance its foreign policy interests in line with its long term strategic objectives.
And I don’t think the decision to turn away a U.S. carrier group was made by some disgruntled harbor master. This one went to the top.
I would also consider the Black Thanksgiving stunt a particularly clever piece of political theater—because it occurred on the Bush administration’s watch, when the U.S. was trying to inveigle Chinese support for Iran sanctions and unable to respond to the Chinese insult with anything more than an “in your face” sail through the Taiwan Strait.
If the Chinese had pulled this stunt during the administration of the next (and quite possibly Democratic) U.S. president, the Blue Team would have been all over the craven appeasers of the Democratic Party—and the administration might have been stampeded into a harder line as a result.
But critics will have to deal with the fact—which will be noted in foreign ministries throughout the world—that the precedent has been established—and rather meekly acknowledged—during the blood-and-thunder reign of George W. Bush.
When it comes to powerful entities finding themselves in weak and vulnerable positions, the Kitty Hawk isn’t the only dog in the water.Photo from the Kitty Hawk website