Commentary Magazine


A Closer Look at China’s Port Closures

There is word from Washington that, together with the Chinese, the American government has agreed “to put behind them” the dispute that erupted when China abruptly closed Hong Kong to a number of American ships and aircraft.

The most important turn-away was the USS Kitty Hawk carrier battle group, which had been granted permission to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in Hong Kong. The U.S. government had flown the families of the crew to the former British dependent territory for the festivities. Then, without explanation, on November 22 that permission was withdrawn, along with permission for the frigate Reuben James to spend New Year’s in Hong Kong.

Faced with great U.S. unhappiness, China reversed herself again, saying the Kitty Hawk could come—but carrier battle groups cannot turn on a dime. By then the Kitty Hawk was well under way for Japan—via the Taiwan Strait.

It is all very well and good for the Chinese ambassador to tell President Bush that it was a “misunderstanding”—indeed, a lot of talk has been coming out of our capital that would make you think sudden port closures on the eve of long-planned visits were routine. But they are not. Closing Hong Kong is not an oversight; it is serious business.

A few questions must be answered before the United States can close the file on this case. Who is in charge of access to Hong Kong? Do people in Hong Kong decide? Does the Chinese Navy decide? Does the standing committee of the politburo of the Communist Party decide? To make the point absolutely clear: does the Party rule the gun—or, as looks increasingly to be the case, does the gun rule the Party?

If the military made the decision against civilian wishes, that would be important news, for the Chinese military recently has been showing more “assertiveness” (to put it delicately). If, on the other hand, the civilians initiated the action, then clearly we have to reconsider what exactly the Chinese authorities are envisioning as a future.

What worries me most in this whole situation is that we seem not to want to know what really happened. If we look too closely, we might find that the benign assumptions upon which our China policy rests do not fit with the facts.