What do Sino-US relations have to do with bartenders and caterers in Lan Kwai Fong?
Not a lot until Beijing recently barred thousands of American troops from Hong Kong.
Which is why we haven’t seen hordes of US sailors in their favorite watering hole in Central.
Beijing refused permission to the US aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarrier, and four warships to visit Hong Kong, citing “inconvenient timing”.
But many people know the decision was in retaliation for increased US naval patrols in the South China Sea.
The Stennis strike group leads those patrols, seen as a counterfoil to China’s aggressive moves in disputed waters in the vital channel.
In a highly symbolic move last month, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited the Stennis in waters claimed by the Philippines.
But another US warship, the USS Blue Ridge, with a crew of more than 900, has been quietly enjoying its port call in Hong Kong since the end of April.
It’s baffling why Beijing, having denied entry to the Stennis, has allowed another US warship, albeit a much smaller one, into Hong Kong.
But don’t get it wrong. The Blue Ridge is an amphibious command ship of the Seventh Fleet, the largest of the forward-deployed strike groups.
It provides command, control, communications and intelligence support to the commander of the Seventh Fleet.
Blue Ridge sailors have been doing volunteer community work and band performances, including one in Hong Kong Disneyland Resort.
A video of a female US soldier singing Cantonese pop songs in the theme park has gone viral on social media.
Hong Kong families also hosted soldiers and showed them the city, according to Blue Ridge’s official website.
Still, Beijing’s Stennis rebuff means losses for Hong Kong’s entertainment and hospitality industries which have been grappling with a stronger Hong Kong dollar.
US soldiers are known for their spending power when they land at bars, clubs and restaurants in Central, Wan Chai orTsim Sha Tsui.
Hong Kong’s defense is Beijing’s responsibility, according to the Basic Law, its mini constitution, so it has no say when the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs insists that ship visits by foreign navies will be examined on a “case by case basis in accordance with sovereignty principles and specific circumstances”.
US sailors are no stranger to Hong Kong. They have been coming here since colonial times, although less frequently after the 1997 handover of sovereignty to China from Britain.
That was when Hong Kong was a de facto US naval base not unlike those in Japan’s Yokosuka, South Korea’s Busan and Singapore.
Since 1997, port calls by the US navy has been governed by a “docking rights” protocol between Beijing and Washington, which means the former decides when — and how — the latter can come and visit.
That also means Hong Kong’s tourism and retail business, which in the old days made a killing from these visits, has become subject to the ebb and flow of Sino-US relations.
The supercarrier USS George Washington, the flagship of the Seventh Fleet, has visited Hong Kong six times since 1997, the last in 2014 when it brought 5,500 sailors ashore on R&R (rest and recreation).
The now decommissioned USS Kitty Hawk first called Hong Kong in 1962 and returned numerous times in the ensuing decades, except in December 2007 when Beijing denied entry at the last minute, even after hundreds of family members had already flown in and booked hotel rooms and bar tables for Thanksgiving reunions.
The reason was believed to be then President George W. Bush’s meeting with the Dalai Lama and an arms deal with Taiwan.
Beijing later allowed the Kitty Hawk to dock on humanitarian grounds but by then it had sailed too far to make a turn-around.
China barred five US warships from entering Hong Kong in 1999 when its embassy in Belgrade, then capital of Yugoslavia, was bombed by the US air force during the Kosovo War.
It happened again three years later over a mid-air collision between a US Navy intelligence aircraft and a Chinese interceptor fighter jet over the South China Sea and also in 2002 when the then Taiwan defense minister visited the US.
Through all this, Beijing has courted backlash at its own cost and that of Hong Kong.
US Sen. Ted Cruz recently said on Twitter that US warships should instead visit Taiwan. A netizen said “[Washington] should boycott Hong Kong”.
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