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Two Chinese Warships Pay Visit to San Diego

The missile cruiser and fuel ship are the first to arrive in the U.S. since a 2001 spy plane crash.

September 19, 2006|Tony Perry and Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO — Under a clear blue sky Monday, two Chinese warships slipped peacefully into San Diego Bay, a sign of some warming in the sometimes chilly relationship between the two countries.

The arrival of the guidedmissile cruiser Qingdao and the oiler Hongzehu marked the third visit of Chinese ships to the West Coast -- but the first since the 2001 incident in which a Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter, forcing the U.S. plane to land on China's Hainan Island and requiring 11 days of diplomatic wrangling before the plane's crew was allowed to leave.

"With this visit, China and the United States have an important opportunity to develop and build through our sailors relationships for cooperation in maintaining a peaceful and stable region," Rear Adm. Len Hering, commander of Navy Region Southwest, said as the ships docked at the 32nd Street Naval Station.

Three hundred members of the local Chinese community greeted the ships. The Navy Band was accompanied by the Chinese Navy Band.

China could have its first aircraft carrier by the end of this year, and Pentagon analysts have warned in recent years that China could present a major threat as its expanding "blue-water" navy increasingly is able to travel far from home. But the U.S. also may need Chinese cooperation in the United Nations to reign in the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.

In San Diego, the two Chinese ships are surrounded by carriers, destroyers and submarines. On Monday, a variety of U.S. warplanes screamed overhead.

When it comes to military relations with the United States, analysts said, China is more wary of exposing its weaknesses than of revealing its strengths.

"It's like a millionaire invites someone who only has a few dollars to enter into a partnership," said Ni Lexiong, a defense analyst and professor at the Shanghai Institute of Politics and Law. "The latter wouldn't accept it because he wouldn't have any real say in the partnership and might even risk what little money he does have."

The U.S., meanwhile, has every interest in fostering closer military relations in hopes that Chinese leaders will see America's overwhelming military superiority and convey their impressions back to their political leaders in Beijing -- making them think twice about challenging the Pentagon, Lexiong said.

Chinese leaders have eased their reservations about improving relations with the U.S. in recent months as their confidence gradually improves, analysts say.

They also have a big interest in keeping overall bilateral relations on a good footing and don't want military issues to add strain at a time of economic friction and foreign policy differences over Iran and Sudan.

Better bilateral relations, in Beijing's view, would encourage Washington to restrain Taiwan, while military acrimony might spur conservatives in Washington to encourage Taiwan's pro-independence voices. "In a bid to improve its relations with the United States, China is now trying to actively spur these defense exchanges," said Jia Qingguo, vice dean of international studies at Peking University.

Since he assumed command last year of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. William Fallon has visited China three times, calling for greater transparency and reciprocity in the access each side receives.

In San Diego, crew members aboard the two ships will participate in a search-and-rescue training mission with U.S. ships. But first the crew members will enjoy some free time, including a visit to the San Diego Zoo and its pandas, on loan from China.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

mark.magnier@latimes.com

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