Last Wednesday, a White House spokesman said that the Chinese foreign minister had told President Bush it was all a “misunderstanding.” But according to Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, the Chinese are saying that their foreign minister “did not tell President Bush on Wednesday that blocking the Thanksgiving Day port visit to Hong Kong by aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk was the result of a misunderstanding.”
The incident followed Beijing’s refusal, a few days earlier, to permit two American minesweeping ships permission to take refuge in Hong Kong harbor from a storm.
Whether these incident were misunderstandings or not, the most disconcerting aspect of this affair is not Chinese behavior, which is becoming predictable in its unpredictability, but our government’s puzzled response.
“I’m aware of no hiccups at all in our efforts to increase military-to-military cooperation, exchanges with the Chinese,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell. “I think that’s why this incident is so baffling to us, because there was no indication at all prior to the Kitty Hawk being refused entry to the port of Hong Kong that there was any reason or any cause for concern.”
Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, says the Kitty Hawk incident “is not, in our view, conduct that is indicative of a country that understands its obligations as a responsible nation.” True enough.
But why did Admiral Keating have to go on to say that the incidents are “perplexing”?
Why did he have to say “We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to work our way around some of these aggravations”?
Why did he have to say (in remarks summarized in the Thai press) that “he does not want to reduce military cooperation with China, but rather to increase dialogue and joint training in order to avoid misunderstandings”?
Even if these “aggravations” truly are “perplexing,” should the stance of the U.S. government be that of a disappointed supplicant expressing bafflement? Or at the very least should we be saying forcefully that China appears increasingly to be playing by different rules than we are, and it’s time to pay attention?