Amid assurances that the port call is unrelated to Taiwan's upcoming presidential election, U.S. Carrier Group Seven (Seventh Fleet), headed by the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, reached Hong Kong yesterday after sailing past South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.
Fleet commander Rear Admiral Gerald L. Hoewing, stressing that the action symbolizes the resumption of U.S.-PRC military relations and gives 7,000 sailors a chance to rest and recuperate in Hong Kong, nonetheless implied that the carrier fleet is prepared to move anywhere at any time.
In addition to the aircraft carrier, which carries 71 aircraft, the fleet of nine vessels includes two nuclear submarines, two missile cruisers, one missile destroyer, two destroyers, and a supply ship. The fleet is the largest to visit Hong Kong since NATO bombed the PRC embassy in Belgrade last May.
According to Admiral Hoewing, this is a routine visit to the Western Pacific. He noted that the fleet's final destination is the Middle East, and that the current stop in Hong Kong is unrelated to Taiwan's presidential elections. The U.S. Navy is maintaining a low profile during the visit in an effort to avoid provoking Beijing. The fleet's route to Hong Kong avoided the Taiwan Strait.
The ROC Ministry of National Defense yesterday stated that the U.S. carrier fleet provided advance notification before passing near Taiwan. The Defense Ministry declined to comment further on the significance, if any, of the fleet's movements.
During the last ROC presidential election in March 1996, Beijing conducted military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, prompting Washington to dispatch two aircraft carriers to the area to avert conflict.
Joseph Prueher, commander of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet at that time, was appointed American ambassador to Beijing three months ago.
The passage of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act by the U.S. House of Representatives last week has raised tensions between Beijing and Washington, causing PRC military commander in Hong Kong Xiong Ziren to refuse an invitation to visit the U.S. fleet at anchor.
A Taiwan official said yesterday that while the arrival of the carrier fleet can be considered a routine stop, it could also be interpreted as a show of strength by the United States toward mainland China.
The official further noted that the Hangzhou, the first "956 Project A" modern destroyer purchased by Beijing from Russia, also happens to be about to pass Hong Kong and the Taiwan Strait on its way north to join the PRC's East China Sea Fleet. Thus the presence of the U.S. carrier fleet in the region at this very time needs no further explanation.
The official said that the U.S. has related a message to both Beijing and Taipei that any heated words or actions during the ROC presidential election would be detrimental to regional peace and stability.