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WTC: Welcome to China

Qingdao (China), Nov. 24 (Reuters): A US naval destroyer docked smoothly on China’s eastern coast today, displaying how well ties fractured by a mid-air plane collision and discord over Taiwan have healed during the war on terror.

The USS Paul Foster nudged into a naval pier in Qingdao, headquarters of China’s Northern Fleet, after a Chinese destroyer greeted it at sea by flying maritime flags for the letters “W”, “T” and “C” — meaning “Welcome To China”.

Some 340 black-uniformed crew stood at attention along the guardrails of the American warship, face to face with blue-suited Chinese sailors striking similar poses along the dock. A navy brass band hailed the arrival of the US warship, the first to pull into a mainland port since an April, 2001, mid-air collision between a US plane and a Chinese fighter off China’s southern shore.

The port call came a month after a summit between Presidents George W. Bush and Jiang Zemin in Crawford, Texas, where China’s foreign ministry says the two reached an agreement to resume full military exchanges and consultations.

Officials from the US embassy in Beijing said this stop was finalised around that time but planned months in advance. A US carrier dropped anchor in Hong Kong two days ago in another sign of military ties on the mend.

The captain of the Paul F. Foster, Commander Chuck Nygaard, was met with a handshake from Guo Shouqian, deputy chief of staff of China’s Northern Fleet, at the end of a red-carpeted gangplank.

“I know that there has been some turbulence” in relations, said Nygaard, who last visited China aboard the USS Blue Ridge, which docked in Shanghai weeks before the spy plane incident.

“We are a part of renewed relations and improved relations between our two countries,” he told an audience of reporters and Chinese military brass.

Guo stressed Jiang’s latest visit with Bush. Jiang stepped down as boss of the Communist Party this month but stayed on as head of the military and made clear he would continue to play a highly influential role in policy.

A wave of crises, from terrorism to Iraq and North Korea, have pushed Beijing and Washington closer over the past year, despite obstacles like weapons proliferation and Taiwan.

The US navy vice-admiral, Paul Gaffney, II met China’s defence minister Chi Haotian in Beijing last month, the highest American military man to visit since the spy plane incident.

“Our two very powerful navies can do so much for stability in the region,” said Nygaard.

His late 1970s-era destroyer — carrying ground and surface-to-air missiles, two five-inch guns and a helicopter — had sailed in from Yokosuka in Japan and after a half-year tour in places like India, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

On the other side of the pier was the destroyer Qingdao, which returned home two months ago after what was billed as the Chinese navy’s first circumnavigation of the globe.

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