Into Uncharted Waters

The top brass made sure this would be no ordinary shore leave. The 350 sailors on the USS Chancellorsville got strict orders last week before setting foot in the Chinese port of Qingdao. No public drunkenness. No fighting. And hands off the local women--including the ones at neighborhood barbershops where the service includes "special massages."

Rowdiness was the last thing anyone wanted. Since Beijing opened its doors in the 1980s, the U.S. Navy has made nine port calls--four of them to Qingdao. But the guided-missile cruiser's visit was the first since NATO mistakenly bombed China's Belgrade embassy in May 1999 during the Kosovo war. Many Chinese still think the attack was no accident. And lately, tensions have worsened over issues such as the theater missile defense (TMD) program. The U.S. plan, conceived partly in response to China's rising military profile, would create an antimissile system to protect American troops and allies in northern Asia. Beijing, lagging badly in high-tech arms, vehemently opposes any such scheme--especially if it covers Taiwan.

Even so, the Chinese tried to put their guests at ease last week. A huge red banner decorated the Northern Fleet's home base: warmly welcome the U.S. Navy to Qingdao. "We will make you feel at home," Adm. Ding Guige, the Northern Fleet's second in command, promised Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The Chinese threw a lavish banquet for the Americans, who made a valiant effort to comply with the official U.S. ban on public displays of intoxication. Staying sober was no easy feat; the hosts toasted their American friends with oceans of wine and the seaport's namesake beer. "They kept saying, 'Gan bei! Gan bei!' " says Capt. Kevin Wensing. That's Chinese for "Bottoms up!" Musicians playing Chinese traditional instruments entertained the party with chorus after chorus of "Turkey in the Straw."

There were some painfully sour notes. Just 125 miles down the coast, the People's Liberation Army celebrated its 73d birthday on Aug. 1 with a military exercise of epic proportions, featuring submarines, attack helicopters, amphibious tanks and as many as 110,000 troops. The message came through loud and clear in Taiwan, scarcely 100 miles across the water from the site of the practice invasion. The official China Defense News Military Weekly described the war games as a demonstration of Beijing's "ability to smash the pipe dreams of... 'Taiwan independence' advocates and to protect the unity of the motherland."

Senior Chinese naval officers didn't sound so bellicose as they toured the Chancellorsville. The U.S. ship is fitted with Aegis, the world's most advanced system for distinguishing friend from foe in combat. If TMD development goes ahead, the vessel could easily be upgraded as a key part of the program. Still, the two navies managed to avoid such thorny topics last week. In September the U.S. Navy is planning to repay Qingdao's hospitality when Chinese warships visit Pearl Harbor and Seattle. Captain Wensing will be on hand for the festivities. He says he's bringing a case of Budweiser to treat his Chinese friends.