U.S. carrier arrives in Hong Kong amid China tensions

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama gives his blessing to the audience during a talk in Melbourne December 10, 2009. REUTERS/Mick Tsikas

HONG KONG (Reuters) - The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Nimitz sailed into Hong Kong Wednesday despite a Chinese pledge to suspend military exchanges with the United States after its pledge of arms sales to Taiwan.

Speculation had swirled on whether China might prevent the Nimitz from visiting over the arms sales and in retaliation for a planned meeting between the Dalai Lama and President Barack Obama in the White House later this week.

Hong Kong has been a favorite destination for U.S. sailors on R&R since the Vietnam War. The Nimitz and four accompanying ships will send more than 5,000 sailors ashore on this visit.

Tensions with Washington have arisen over issues ranging from trade and currencies to the U.S. plan to sell $6.4 billion of weapons to self-ruled Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.

While U.S. warships have long made periodic port calls to the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, China has barred U.S. ships from entering at sensitive moments.

In 2007, the USS Kitty Hawk was denied entry to Hong Kong as it neared the city’s waters for a Thanksgiving visit. Analysts linked the denial to then U.S. President George W. Bush awarding the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, one of the country’s highest honors, to the Dalai Lama, whom China brands a separatist.

“Hong Kong is a vibrant city and a favorite port of call for our sailors,” said Commander Carrier Strike Group 11 Rear Adm. John W. Miller in a statement.

“We look forward to an enjoyable stay here.”

Additional reporting by Phillip Stewart in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie