The saga of a US aircraft carrier being denied entry to Hong Kong at Thanksgiving took a bizarre turn yesterday when China denied saying the whole affair had been a misunderstanding.
The White House said Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (楊潔箎) had told US President George W. Bush as much on Wednesday.
The US Department of Defense said it had issued a formal complaint to China and that Beijing still had not provided sufficient explanation for blocking the USS Kitty Hawk, and eight ships traveling with it, entry to Hong Kong for a long-planned Thanksgiving visit.
China later changed its mind, but by then the carrier group was steaming back to Japan.
"Reports that Foreign Minister Yang said in the United States that it was a misunderstanding do not accord with the facts," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao (劉建超) told a news conference in Beijing. "China approved the visit of the Kitty Hawk group to Hong Kong based on humanitarian reasons. The decision made by the US later was up to them."
He did not elaborate. Liu also denied receiving a complaint from the US.
"The Chinese side has not received any protest from the US side. I don't think there should be a protest on this issue," he said, suggesting reporters ask the US why its officials decided not to send the ship to Hong Kong after China approved the visit.
There has been speculation China's move to block the ships was related to irritation over US plans to help Taiwan upgrade its missile system and a meeting between Bush and exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Liu said he thought generally that Sino-US ties were developing well but expressed dissatisfaction with some recent US actions.
"We think that generally communication, talks and exchanges are progressing smoothly. Both sides have smooth communication on bilateral and international issues," he said.
"But it should be pointed out that recently, bilateral relations have been interfered with and damaged by mistaken actions by the US. For examples, US leaders have met the Dalai Lama," Liu said.
"Also on the Taiwan question, China approves of the US opposing Taiwan's UN entry referendum," he added. "At the same time, we have grave concern with US arms sales to Taiwan."
Liu's comments came after US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David Sedney met for 30 minutes with Chinese Major General Zhao Ning (趙寧) at the Pentagon on Wednesday, conveying "deep regret and concern" over the Chinese actions, Morrell said.
He said Sedney told the general they "run counter to our joint interest in positively developing our military-to-military relations."
"The general said nothing substantive in response, but promised to relay the message back to Beijing," the Pentagon spokesman said in a written statement.
Analysts said the Pentagon's reaction to the Chinese rebuff has been unusually pointed.
"I have never seen the Pentagon get so angry at the Chinese in my 30 years of dealing with the China issue," said John Tkacik, a former State Department official now at the Heritage Foundation think tank.
The first sign of trouble came on Nov. 20 when China refused to allow two US minesweepers -- the USS Patriot and the USS Guardian -- to enter Hong Kong for refuge from a storm and to refuel. They refueled at sea and made it back to their home port in Sasebo, Japan, without incident. Then came the denial for the Kitty Hawk, a port call that had been scheduled at least a month in advance.