US ‘seeks clarification’ of Chinese denial

US AIRCRAFT CARRIER BARRED FROM H.K. PORT

Washington lodges formal protest; Beijing says it is not a misunderstanding

THE US yesterday said it was “seeking clarification” from China why an American aircraft carrier was denied access to Hong Kong last week.

It added that the Chinese refusal to let the USS Kitty Hawk and other warships dock at Hong Kong was “wrong” no matter what the explanation was. The Pentagon had earlier summoned the top Chinese military official here to lodge a formal protest, and the White House had also said that visiting Chinese

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had told President George W. Bush that the whole affair was a “misunderstanding”.

But Beijing brushed aside the Pentagon protest and made clear that Mr Yang did not say the incident was a misunderstanding.

“The report is not in line with the facts,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told a regular press briefing in Beijing yesterday.

He appeared to suggest that China had cancelled the visit of the USS Kitty Hawk and accompanying vessels to register its unhappiness over actions of the US – as it had done occasionally with previous Hong Kong port calls.

News reports speculated that there were two reasons for what Beijing did. One was the US Congress awarding its highest civilian honour to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, last month. Another, and perhaps more important, was US weapons sales to Taiwan, an island China regards as a renegade province.

Asked about this, White House spokesman Dana Perino said “we were surprised by that explanation”.

“We are seeking clarification,” she told reporters. “Regardless, it was wrong for this ship to be turned away.”

The Pentagon charged that Beijing had cancelled a Thanksgiving port call for the Japan-based USS Kitty Hawk, accompanying ships and 8,000 crew members just hours before it was supposed to dock on Nov 21.

China subsequently reversed its decision, but by that time, the aircraft carrier, along with four warships and a nuclear submarine, were already heading back to Yokosuka in Japan.

Mr Liu explained that China offered port visits on a “case by case” basis. “We welcome US naval ship visits to Hong Kong. But it was the US decision not to dock.”

Underscoring the prevailing tensions in bilateral military ties, the top US military commander in the Pacific, Admiral Timothy Keating, said he was “perplexed and concerned” by Beijing’s last- minute action. It had earlier also denied two other American ships port access.

The Pentagon on Wednesday registered its concerns with the Chinese military attache here.

Issuing a formal protest, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence David Sedney conveyed “deep regret and concern” over China’s actions. He said they “run counter to our joint interest in positively developing our military-to-military relations”.

The flare-up, which caught senior US military officials by surprise, came just three weeks after Defence Secretary Robert Gates visited Beijing to press for greater military contacts to avoid misunderstanding and miscalculations.

Observers believe the incident would not seriously damage bilateral ties. But there are concerns that periodic hiccups could add more strain to relations.

“Until now, the US-China relationship has maintained a discipline in which neither side retaliated,” Dr Michael Green, a former Bush aide on Asia, told The Straits Times.

“Never did Beijing block cooperation on North Korea because of US’ Taiwan policy or did Washington retaliate in trade because of disagreements over human rights, for example,” he said.

“Both sides knew that such practices would lead only to an unravelling of the consensus behind bilateral relations.

“But Beijing is increasingly breaking that discipline, which is not healthy for stable long-term US-China relations.”

How events unfolded

Nov 18
Two US minesweepers denied permission to enter Hong Kong to refuel and take shelter from bad weather.

Nov 21

China blocked a Thanksgiving visit to Hong Kong by the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier group. Ships set sail for Japan.

Nov 22

Thanksgiving. China lifted restrictions on US warships, which found it not possible to turn back.

Nov 28

White House said Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told US President George W. Bush in the Oval Office that the Kitty Hawk incident was a misunderstanding.

Later on Nov 28

Pentagon delivered formal protest to China over incident.

Nov 29

China said that news reports on Mr Yang Jiechi’s White House comment were “not in line with facts”, and that its ties with the US have been “disturbed and harmed” of late.

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