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US-China ties in focus as Nimitz docks in Hong Kong

USS Nimitz
The Nimitz and its battle group sailed in to Chinese waters this week and dropped anchor not far from Hong Kong Island

By Damian Grammaticas
BBC News, Hong Kong

Looming out of the mist in Hong Kong's harbour was the hulking, grey outline of the USS Nimitz.

The aircraft carrier is an unmistakeable symbol of American might.

Behind the US ships, shrouded in cloud were the towers of Hong Kong's skyscrapers, symbols of another rising power, an increasingly wealthy and ambitious China.

The Nimitz and its battle group sailed in to Chinese waters this week and dropped anchor not far from Hong Kong Island.

China had given the go ahead for the visit despite its recent threat to suspend all military exchanges.

Emerging China

On the flight deck of the Nimitz fighter jets were parked in neat lines.

Armed guards patrolled the deck keeping watch. In recent weeks tensions between America and China have been growing.

Rear Adm John Miller in Hong Kong (17 Feb 2010)
Rear Adm Miller did not want to discuss the tensions with China

But the commander of the carrier-battle group, Rear Admiral John Miller, did not want to discuss the tensions with China, preferring to focus instead on ways the US and its rising rival might be able to co-operate.

"Our leadership speaks routinely about the benefits of a stable emerging China that's able to co-operate and operate in a maritime environment," said Rear Adm Miller.

"A great example of where that's happening is off the Horn of Africa where a number of nations are involved in counter-piracy operations and that includes China and many other nations including the US."

But in reality co-operation between America and a rising China is in short supply; instead disputes between the two sides seem to be multiplying.

Assertive fronts

Back on Hong Kong island, shoppers throng the streets.

Lew Mon Hung
If America isn't friendly we can make life difficult
Lew Mon Hung
Hong Kong-based businessman

The crowds - many of them visitors from other parts of China, here for the New Year holidays - are a testament to China's soaring economy.

Growing with it is a sense the balance of power is shifting in China's direction.

So Beijing is becoming more assertive on many fronts.

There is the internet. Beijing says accusations that it censors the web and that Google's e-mail service was hacked from China have harmed ties.

There is Taiwan. China has threatened sanctions on American firms that sell weapons to Taiwan and said it may not co-operate with America on major international issues.

And there's President Barack Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama. Beijing says ties with America will be strained further.

'Hit America'

Lew Mon Hung is a wealthy Hong Kong-based businessman who sits on the foreign affairs committee of Beijing's Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference - effectively an upper chamber with an advisory role.

French navy ship visiting Hong Kong, 2007
French, US and other navy ships have long visited Hong Kong harbour

He says if the US damages China's core interests then Beijing should retaliate.

"If America isn't friendly we can make life difficult - for instance if Iran asks to buy missiles or missile defence systems, China could sell them," he says.

"Let it shock America. Hit America in the ribs. It would hurt America's core interests and teach it a lesson. "

And the Pentagon is now concerned about the build-up of China's military power.

Looming conflicts?

During 60th Anniversary celebrations last November China's communist rulers displayed some of their new weapons.

But the US says Beijing is being secretive, its military intentions are not clear.

Yan Xuetong
The narrower the gap between China and the US, the more conflict there will be
Yan Xuetong
Tsinghua University

Yan Xuetong, the Director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, sees conflicts looming.

"There will be more conflicts between China and the US, the narrower the gap between China and the US, the more conflict there will be, and on many issues," he says.

"But I think it will be on the economy first as that is where the gap between China and America is narrowest."

Back on board the USS Nimitz the Stars and Stripes flags are fluttering in the breeze.

The implications of all this are serious. If the US and China are heading for more confrontation then the world is likely to be a more unpredictable and unstable place.

If the world's two biggest powers cannot co-operate there might be far-reaching implications, which could affect us all.



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