China has agreed to allow the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz to make a port call in Hong Kong later this week, despite its recent decision to suspend military exchanges with the United States. Some analysts say that although Beijing has canceled port calls in the past, this week's approval might be meant as a goodwill gesture at a time when tensions are rising. Others say it is a sign that China is changing its policy toward the United States.
Late last month, when the United States announced it was selling more than $6 billion worth of weapons to Taiwan, China responded quickly by suspending planned military exchanges with the United States. It also threatened to impose sanctions on companies involved in the deal.
China regards self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and says any decision by Washington to sell arms to the island is interference in its affairs.
Ties between the United States and China have become increasingly strained in recent weeks. In addition to the arms deal, disagreements over China's currency exchange rate and U.S. concerns over Chinese Internet censorship have frayed relations.
And -- as Chinese officials put it -- the expected meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama this week threatens trust and cooperation between the two countries.
In 2007, when U.S. President George W. Bush met with the Dalai Lama at about the same time an American arms sale package to Taiwan was approved, China denied several U.S. naval vessels entry to Hong Kong.
Ma Dingsheng, a military analyst in Hong Kong, says the announced visit of the USS Nimitz could indicate a shift in Beijing's approach toward Washington.
Ma says that if China allows the Nimitz to enter Hong Kong -- even when the controversy over the arms deal has not subsided and when tensions are rising over the Obama-Dalai Lama meeting -- it would be a sign that China has become more flexible in its handling of U.S. military diplomacy, giving the two countries more room to manage their relationship.
The Nimitz is scheduled to arrive in Hong Kong on Wednesday -- one day before President Barrack Obama is expected to meet with the Dalai Lama.
Following China's stern response to the announced sale of advanced surface-to-air Patriot missiles, Blackhawk helicopters and other weapons systems, U.S. officials are calling on China to take a mature approach to Sino-American relations.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says the United States is committed to maintaining a consistent military relationship with China.
"We have to be mature enough, this relationship has to be important enough to both of us -- not just us, both of us -- to continue to focus on this and do the hard work it requires, to continue to engage even when times get tough," he said.
Political scientist June Dreyer at the University of Miami says that allowing the Nimitz to dock in Hong Kong could be a sign that Beijing feels it has overplayed its hand and that it was time for a soothing gesture.
"I think probably that this 'anger' -- quote, unquote -- from Beijing over the arms sale is what I would call a perfunctory utterance. They always protest. They have to protest," she said.
Dreyer says that there is nothing in the arms deal that could tilt the military balance between China and Taiwan in Taipei's favor.
"What was sold to Taiwan is inferior equipment to what the PLA [i.e., the People's Liberation Army] has. There are no submarines; there are no F-16 [fighter jet] upgrades," she added.
Dreyer says that China has a tendency to pull back when it meets tough resistance.
"I don't think that this is a change in ultimate direction. I think this may be a temporary stratagem," said Dreyer.
Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief for Defense News, says that although the United States is working on building military-to-military ties with China, Beijing frequently uses them as a dangerous political tool.
"These military-to-miltary relations are critical for preventing conflicts. And China has to work much harder to build a better relationship instead of creating these sorts of potential pitfalls," he said.
Minnick says that China often creates a crisis when it wants something from the United States. And while he hopes that does not mean violent clashes will erupt, he warns that in the coming months it is possible that tensions could come in the form of Chinese naval harassment of American ships, much like what happened to the U.S. naval vessel Impeccable last year.
Before the protests over the American arms sale to Taiwan began last month, U.S.-China military ties seemed to be on the mend. Analysts say that current tensions will not last long, given the range of more pressing issues -- including the global economy and climate change -- that call for Chinese and American cooperation.