Hong Kong's Kitty Hawk pissy-fit

A U.S. admiral spanks China for playing games with the Navy over Thanksgiving. But who will apologize to the Wanchai bar girls?

By Andrew Leonard
November 28, 2007 9:59PM (UTC)
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The admiral is not amused. On Tuesday, Timothy Keating, head of U.S. Pacific Command, slapped back at China for the country's rude behavior in denying the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk access to Hong Kong harbor over Thanksgiving weekend, and then changing its mind ... but only after it was too late. Keating was also annoyed that China had recently refused permission for two mine-sweeping ships to enter the harbor during a storm.

"It is not, in our view," said Keating, "conduct that is indicative of a country who understands its obligations as a responsible nation."

How the World Works will restrain itself from pointing out the manifold ways that the United States has not fulfilled its obligations as a responsible nation in recent years. The quote is funny enough for anyone who has actually been in Hong Kong when a U.S. carrier group pays a visit.


In 1984, on Christmas break from a year studying Chinese in Taiwan, I visited Hong Kong for the first time and found myself accompanied by umpteen thousand sailors from a U.S. carrier group in town for a three-day leave.

Forget about the aggrieved relatives who flew to Hong Kong to share Thanksgiving with their Navy family members. The real hurting party in this debacle was the economy of Wanchai. Hogarth's depiction of "Gin Lane" has nothing on the Wanchai bar district when the U.S. Navy comes to town. Add to the picture about 10,000 bar girls and enough bouncers to stage an invasion of Okinawa, put on a soundtrack of Filipino cover bands playing note-perfect renditions of "Billy Jean" and "Beat It," and lubricate with sufficient alcohol to float a battleship. You get the idea. I'm afraid my tender 22-year-old Chinese-language student sensibility just couldn't handle the sensory overload. There are lot of words one can use to describe what happens when a carrier group goes on leave in an Asian port. "Responsible" is not usually one of them. I caught a cheap flight to Bangkok the next day, where the scene was considerably more sedate.

But not before I had a chance to contemplate, from the deck of the Star Ferry, the sight of an American aircraft carrier nestled in the incredible natural port of Hong Kong harbor. As a projection of pure military power, nothing beats an aircraft carrier with its jet fighters lined up in serried ranks. I was a long way from home that Christmas, but the sight of those ships gave me my first real lesson in what it means to be a superpower. It means being able to park unimaginable might wherever you like. It means you can get in anybody's business, should you feel an itch.


What got China's decision makers riled? Were they angry about last month's meeting between George Bush and the Dalai Lama, or the recent announcement by the U.S. that it would sell Taiwan an upgrade for its missile defense system? Or was it simply an outburst of Opium War indignation -- for citizens of a nation with a long history of its own imperial might, the symbolic import of a carrier group sitting in a harbor like a great white shark lolling in a hot tub has got to be a tad aggravating.

Does that excuse China's obnoxious kindergarten behavior -- first giving permission for the visit, then denying it at the last second, and then giving it again? No. The world does not need a pissy fit between China and the U.S. But if China's real message was to say, once again, Hong Kong is our playground, not yours, well, that communique probably got through.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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