China’s Ban on U.S. Navy Port Visits to Hong Kong Doesn’t Actually Matter
No sailor forgets walking through the steamy streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, or crossing Victoria Harbor at night as The Peak looms over the sparkling Hong Kong skyline. It seems, however, that for American sailors, that experience is a thing of the past.
The U.S. military can no longer visit Hong Kong, following a recent announcement from China’s Foreign Ministry indefinitely suspending U.S. ship and aircraft visits to the city. While the announcement was delivered to sound as if this is a new and punitive development in response to the recently signed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, it only made explicit an unspoken policy that has been in place since well before that particular legislation was signed into law. This public suspension comes at a tense moment — protests have rocked Hong Kong since June and there seems to be no end in sight to the trade war between Beijing and Washington. While the move is undoubtedly a disappointment for sailors of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, in terms of operations, it offers more opportunities than consequences for the U.S. Navy.
This Isn’t the First Time China Has Canceled Military Diplomacy
Publicly suspending military diplomacy is not unknown, nor even uncommon, in China’s relationship with the United States. In fact, canceling U.S. Navy port visits to Hong Kong has long been a staple among China’s preferred methods of expressing its displeasure with the United States, with at least five visits canceled in the past five years. U.S. military sales to Taiwan, criticism of Chinese activities in the South China Sea, and offering a medal to the Dalai Lama are only some of the reasons China has canceled visits in the past. In each case, port visits to Hong Kong resumed after a short pause. The announced blanket suspension is not even the first time in 2019 that visits have been canceled in connection with the Hong Kong protests. Amphibious transport dock USS Green Bay had a visit canceled at short notice in August 2019 and a planned September visit by the guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie was canceled at the same time. The justification for the August cancellations was that a U.S. warship would send an “extremely dangerous and wrong signal” to those protesting in Hong Kong. As the situation on the ground in Hong Kong continues to escalate it is extremely unlikely that China’s government would reverse course on this announcement and allow a U.S. vessel to visit, reducing this explicit suspension to a cost-free method for the Chinese government to express its pique without any real change in policy.
Why the Navy Won’t Miss Hong Kong
The U.S. Navy does not need Hong Kong in order to execute its assigned missions and it is likely time it learned to do without it. In an operational sense, the loss of Hong Kong as an available port is negligible. Port visits can be best described as a spectrum, the two extremes of which are so-called “working ports” and “liberty ports.” A working port means the ship is pulling in for fuel, supplies, and/or maintenance. In a liberty port sailors will be allowed away from the ship to sightsee and sometimes to participate in organized community relations activities with the host nation. Most port visits are not exclusively dedicated to one or the other and generally include time for recreation along with required shipboard work. The U.S. Navy ended fleet freight routing in Hong Kong in 2017, meaning that there is no warehousing or cargo staging available to its ships visiting the port. In terms of the utility of Hong Kong as a resupply point, this means that U.S. Navy ships must either utilize other ports or conduct underway replenishments with U.S. Combat Logistics Force vessels while at sea for ship’s stores and provisions.
For a number of reasons, not least of which is counterintelligence, Hong Kong is not used for major maintenance. Hong Kong’s port is also extremely busy, limited by its size, and the U.S. Navy is not the most lucrative customer when competing for pier space. This combination of factors results in U.S. Navy ships commonly remaining at anchor offshore rather than mooring at a pier. While at anchor, all transfers of fuel, goods, or personnel must be accomplished with smaller craft and are subject to weather and sea state constraints.
Overall, Hong Kong is an enjoyable liberty port for sailors in the U.S. Seventh Fleet but does not provide sufficient operational utility to outweigh the downsides. In today’s strategic environment, the simple fact that U.S. access is subject to the approval of the Chinese Communist Party means that any potential scenario involving opposition to China or its interests will likely result in a closure of Hong Kong to the U.S. Navy.
Finding New Ports in Asia
In light of Hong Kong’s limitations, the Foreign Ministry announcement does offer a silver lining to U.S. Navy planners and logisticians. With Hong Kong off the table for the time being, fleet planners can work more with partners like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam to open new ports and exercise existing Acquisition Cross Servicing Agreements. Both Vietnam and the Philippines offer attractive possibilities for conducting maintenance away from traditional U.S. Navy shipyards, and the U.S. Pacific Fleet is perennially keen to conduct more frequent engagement with the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
A more provocative move would be to start conducting port visits in Taiwan in place of Hong Kong. This proposal, also introduced in the 2017 Taiwan Security Act, offers U.S. support to Taiwan during a period marked by Chinese efforts to strip away its remaining diplomatic recognition and replaces a liberty port with a strategically significant move. Granted, replacing Hong Kong with Taiwan would likely provoke an extremely negative response from China. While previous suspensions have been short-lived, sending military vessels to visit Taiwan might result in a permanent closure of Hong Kong to the U.S. Navy, at least a far longer suspension, or other retaliatory measures. Given Hong Kong’s highlighted lack of operational utility, the trade might well be worth it in terms of U.S. strategic priorities in the Indo-Pacific.
Canceling U.S. Navy port visits to Hong Kong doesn’t hurt the U.S. Navy. Yearly suspensions of naval diplomacy and issuing dire threats of further action only serve to damage China’s own credibility and highlight Beijing’s sensitivity to criticism in public forums. Sailors in the U.S. Seventh Fleet will miss out on nights out in Wan Chai and hikes up Victoria Peak, but only until the port reopens, which it is likely to do. In the meantime, the Navy is facing a valuable opportunity to be creative in expanding its access in the Indo-Pacific, whether it be through exercising existing arrangements with ASEAN countries or by a bold move toward Taiwan. Whether or not the port of Hong Kong reopens to the U.S. Navy, the operations of the U.S. Seventh Fleet will continue unaffected.
Blake Herzinger (@BDHerzinger) is a civilian Indo-Pacific security cooperation specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Benjamin A. Lewis)