BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Tuesday it had voiced “grave concern” to Washington after the USS Kitty Hawk sailed through the Taiwan Strait, just days after an aborted port visit to Hong Kong.
After first denying entry to the carrier and its accompanying strike group for a long-planned stopover during last month’s U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, Beijing changed its mind and said the ships could dock after all in the southern city.
But by then the Kitty Hawk and its support flotilla was heading back to its home port in Japan via the Taiwan Strait, the narrow channel dividing mainland China from self-ruled Taiwan which Beijing considers its territorial waters.
According to the U.S. Navy, “the route selection was based on operational necessity, including adverse weather”.
A typhoon did strike the South China Sea near the Philippines that week, but Beijing was unimpressed by the U.S. explanation.
“The United States informed China at that time and said it took that route due to a storm,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told Tuesday’s regular news conference.
“China expressed grave concern to the United States and requested it to take prudent actions in this sensitive area.”
Beijing has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949 when Mao Zedong’s Communists drove Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Nationalists to the island.
Tensions between the two entities have played out in the strait several times since then, most recently when China conducted military exercises there in 1995 and 1996, prompting the United States to send warships there.
Meanwhile, China has refused to be drawn on its reasons for barring the Kitty Hawk from Hong Kong, repeating on Tuesday there had been no “misunderstanding” as put forward by Washington.
It also declined comment on a Pentagon report that Beijing had turned down a request for another U.S. Navy ship to enter Hong Kong.
“We have already expounded on China’s standpoint many times,” Qin said. “I believe the United States is fully aware of our position, so I don’t have any more comments on that.”
The White House said Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had told President George W. Bush last week that the incident had been a misunderstanding, something China later denied.
Asked on Tuesday what the United States should do to avoid further misunderstandings, Qin said:
“China’s position is very clear. So your mentioning a misunderstanding is not in line with the facts and we’ve expounded on our position on many occasions.”
There has been speculation Beijing’s move to block the ships was related to irritation over U.S. plans to help Taiwan upgrade its missile system, a meeting between Bush and exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama or Chinese war games in the area.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, is a favorite port of call for sailors from around the world, especially for Americans on R & R (rest and recuperation) during and since the Vietnam War.
Reporting by Lindsay Beck; editing by Roger Crabb