China blocked another U.S. ship: Pentagon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China turned down a request for another U.S. Navy ship to visit Hong Kong amid a spat over a long-planned docking of the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, the Pentagon said on Friday.

Washington has complained that China, at the last minute, blocked a visit by the Kitty Hawk and accompanying ships for the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday last week. Family and friends of crew members had flown in to meet their loved ones.

The United States has also complained China refused to let two minesweepers shelter from a storm in Hong Kong last week.

On November 22, China made a late reversal of its decision to bar the Kitty Hawk but by then the ship was steaming away from Hong Kong and could not return, U.S. officials have said.

But when China told the United States it was reversing course, it also rejected a request for the USS Reuben James, a frigate with about 200 crew, to visit Hong Kong over the New Year holiday, a Pentagon spokesman said.

Also on November 22, China told the United States it would not allow the next planned quarterly flight into Hong Kong by a C-17 aircraft to support the U.S. consulate there, said the spokesman, Marine Corps Maj. Stewart Upton.

China’s actions have prompted speculation it wanted to show irritation over U.S. plans to help Taiwan upgrade its missile system and a meeting between President George W. Bush and exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

Beijing sees Taiwan as a renegade province and the Dalai Lama as a separatist trying to win independence for Tibet, which Chinese troops invaded in 1950.

Having protested earlier in the week about the treatment of the Kitty Hawk and the minesweepers, the Bush administration made clear it now wanted to draw a line under the incidents.

“This relationship is growing and maturing and this is something that two nations should be able to work through, and I don’t think escalating it every day is necessary,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

“This incident has not prevented us from being able to work with the Chinese.”

The rejections mark the first time China has turned down a port visit by a U.S. Navy ship since 2004, a U.S. defense official said. The request for the Reuben James was made in October.

Some 50 U.S. Navy ships visit Hong Kong every year, the official said, about the same amount as before Britain returned the territory to Chinese rule in 1997.

The Kitty Hawk was accompanied by five vessels at the time of its planned visit to Hong Kong, the official said. Officials had previously said it had eight accompanying ships.

Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, Editing by John O’Callaghan