On the way to war
By Andrew Demaria
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- For the United States and China it was a symbol of strengthening ties and a visible sign of Beijing's support for the war against terrorism.
For Hong Kong, it was a chance for traders and tourism operators to cash in on an expected HK$40 million ($5.1 million) windfall.
But for most of the 7,700 crew of the U.S. Navy's John C. Stennis battle group, it was a few days off, an opportunity to let their hair down before embarking on their next mission -- war.
Carrying more than 70 tactical aircraft, the USS John C. Stennis, the U.S. Navy's youngest commissioned nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific fleet, arrived in Hong Kong along with seven other ships from its battle group on Friday.
The ships -- two cruisers, two destroyers, an aircraft carrier, a support ship, a guided missile frigate and a Canadian navy vessel -- cut a menacing line in Hong Kong's bustling sea port, appearing mystically out of the smog in the territory's harbor.
Missing from the flotilla are two nuclear submarines, the USS Jefferson City and USS Salt Lake City. U.S. Navy officials refused to give CNN their location, only that they were "known for their stealth."
The carrier group will depart Hong Kong Tuesday to join the U.S.-led war on terrorism -- Operation Enduring Freedom.
Campaign focus to shift
Rear Admiral James M. Zortman, commander of the battle group, was tightlipped about the group's destination, saying only that the Stennis will support the ongoing operation "wherever we are needed."
"This is a war on a global scale against terrorism and right now the battle is taking place in Afghanistan," Zortman said.
"When that battle is over, it's likely that the focus will shift to some other area. I don't know what that area's going to be, but I know that we're prepared to go where we need to go."
Zortman's comments echo recent statements from senior officials in Washington warning that the U.S.-led campaign will not be confined to Afghanistan.
What is known is that the Stennis was deployed two months early from San Diego for a "routine" six-month deployment in the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf to support the ongoing campaign against terrorism.
It will join three other carriers currently operating in the anti-terrorism war, the USS Enterprise, USS Carl Vinson and the USS Kitty Hawk.
While nightclubs swelled and bars and retailers reported a roaring trade over the weekend, the Hong Kong port visit also went some way towards warming frosted ties between the U.S. and China.
Relations between both nations suffered a dramatic setback following the collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet in April.
Zortman said that despite occasional differences, China and the U.S. have a shared common interest in a secure, stable world.
"I know we have some disagreements once in a while but we have very many things in common," he said.
"I think that both the U.S. and China have a very strong shared interest in the stability and peace that comes with reducing the threat of terrorism around the world."
'Going to take years'
China has shown a great deal of support for the United States since the events of September 11.
But Beiijng has made rumblings about speculation the U.S.-led campaign would soon shift focus, possibly to the Middle East.
Adding that the battle was being fought on many fronts Zortman said it would be "good news for all of us" if the campaign in Afghanistan was the only conflict to be fought.
"I don't think that's the case," Zortman said. "If you made me guess, [the war against terrorism] is going to take years."
Although the Stennis has already been involved in military operations, enforcing the no-fly zone in Iraq during a six-month deployment last year, for some of the ship's 5,000 crew Operation Enduring Freedom will be their first campaign.
Morale aboard the vessel was high, the ship's Commanding Officer James A. McDonnell told CNN, dismissing any notion that they had missed most of the action.
"If the global terrorist threat was gone tomorrow, we'd all be just as happy," McDonnell said.
"Our whole job is to be out of a job. And if we are out of a job due to that perspective, that would be terrific."
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