Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told President George W. Bush on Wednesday that Beijing’s refusal to let a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier into Hong Kong was a “misunderstanding,” the White House said.
The Defence Department said it had issued a formal complaint to China and that Beijing still had not provided sufficient explanation for blocking the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, and eight ships travelling with it, entry to Hong Kong for a long-planned Thanksgiving holiday visit.
Bush brought up the issue with China’s foreign minister in a meeting at the White House.
“The president raised the issue about the recent aborted port call by the USS Kitty Hawk. Foreign Minister Yang assured the president that it was a misunderstanding,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
China also denied access last week to two smaller U.S. Navy ships, the minesweepers USS Guardian and USS Patriot, seeking refuge from an approaching storm. Top U.S. Navy officers said that decision was more troublesome than the move to block the Kitty Hawk because the sailors needed safe harbour.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the complaint to China was related to both incidents.
“It is baffling,” he said. “It’s regrettable and we have not to date received sufficient explanation as to why it took place.”
Beijing’s action came as a surprise just weeks after a visit to China by U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates that has been described by U.S. officials as positive.
Relations between China and the United States have improved since 2001, when the countries’ militaries broke contact following a collision between a Chinese fighter jet and U.S. spy plane.
But many differences remain between Beijing and Washington over issues such as China’s military build-up and U.S. weapon sales to Taiwan.
There has been speculation that China’s move to block the ships was related to irritation over U.S. plans to sell Taiwan an upgrade to its missile system and a meeting between Bush and exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
Bush and Yang also discussed North Korea, Iran and other bilateral issues in their meeting, Perino said.
(Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Kristin Roberts; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)