The proposed port call by United States Navy ships to China has run aground on the shoals of US policy. According to press reports from Washington, the two countries have not come to terms with China's insistence that visiting US ships not carry nuclear weapons.
US policy is neither to confirm nor deny whether US naval vessels are nuclear armed. This issue has almost scuttled the military pact linking Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tuesday that ``a number of issues'' remained in arranging the visit and that ``the two sides will maintain contact and continue discussion on this matter.''
According to Western diplomats here, the visit was expected this week in Shanghai after more than six months of planning. It apparently went off course because of remarks by Chinese Communist Party Secretary Hu Yaobang last month. Mr. Hu said the US had assured China there would be no nuclear weapons on any visiting naval vessels. US officials denied giving such assurances.
Hu's remarks had more impact than usual because they were made to journalists in Australia and New Zealand on the eve of his visit to those countries. US ties with New Zealand were disrupted in March when Premier David Lange made good on a campaign promise to block from New Zealand ports US naval ships carrying nuclear weapons. The US has said Mr. Lange's position prevents any port calls in New Zealand by US naval vessels and disrupts military cooperation.
Both China and the US have played down differences over the ship visit at a time when relations between the two countries are going smoothly.
The visit to China would have been the first by a US naval ship since 1949. It was intended to symbolize the growing military cooperation between the two nations. But China also wants to avoid the appearance of a military relationship with either superpower. Some diplomats here say a conspicuous showing of the US flag in a major Chinese port would be ill-timed. They say it might symbolize too much friendship with the US and garner few points for China in international diplomacy, provoking in particular the USSR.
Other diplomats point out that China has made little progress in normalizing its relations with Moscow and remains anxious about Soviet ships operating out of Vietnam's ports to the south and Vladivostok to the east, the headquarters for the Soviet Pacific fleet. In these circumstances, a historic visit by the US Navy would send a signal to the Soviet Union that China's regional security concerns cannot be easily dismissed.