Beijing allows U.S. warships to make stop in Hong Kong


HONG KONG, AP

Just two days after the dismantled pieces of a U.S. spy plane were flown out of mainland China, Beijing granted permission for a pair of American warships to make port calls in Hong Kong, an official said Monday.

Beijing refused clearance in May for an anti-mine ship carrying 1,400 personnel to visit Hong Kong, in a repeat of the stance on port calls mainland China had taken following the crisis sparked by NATO’s 1999 bombing of Beijing’s embassy in Belgrade.

But mainland China notified the United States last week that two smaller anti-mine ships can stop in Hong Kong from July 25-30, U.S. Consulate Spokesperson Barbara Zigli said in response to a reporter’s question.

The permission was granted Thursday, shortly after the U.S. spy plane that collided with a mainland Chinese fighter jet on April 1 was flown in pieces away from China’s Hainan Island, where it had been parked since making an emergency landing. The U.S. crew was detained on Hainan for 11 days.

The warships intending to visit Hong Kong — long a popular port of call for U.S. sailors — are the USS Guardian and USS Patriot, each carrying crews of 82, Zigli said.

Beijing’s decision would appear to indicate a lessening of the tensions that flared over the spy plane crisis that claimed the life of a Chinese pilot, but it also comes just ahead of Friday’s vote by the International Olympic Committee on which city will host the 2008 Olympics.

Beijing is among the top contenders.

Zigli declined to comment on Beijing’s motives for letting the warships in.

“We view it as evidence of Hong Kong’s special status and openness as an international city,” Zigli said by telephone.

Although Hong Kong was returned from Britain to mainland China four years ago, it retains a great deal of local autonomy and Western-style freedoms and capitalism remain in place.

Beijing is firmly in charge of defense and foreign affairs, however, and it has in the past barred U.S. Navy ships to show unhappiness with Beijing’s often-touchy relationship with the United States.

Beijing refused requests for 10 of them to stop here after NATO forces bombed Beijing’s embassy in Belgrade in May 1999.

When Beijing said in May that the USS Inchon could not visit Hong Kong, it stirred fears of a long summer of lost business at the many bars, restaurants and shops that cater to U.S. sailors when they are in town.

Mainland China allowed a university research vessel from California to stop here, however.