The commander of US forces in the Pacific, Admiral Timothy Keating, hit out at China on Tuesday for refusing to allow the Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier group to visit Hong Kong for a Thanksgiving port call last week, a move that some have linked to US arms sales to Taiwan. Keating called the decision "perplexing" and "troublesome."
"This is perplexing. It's not helpful. It is not, in our view, conduct that is indicative of a country who understands its obligations [as] a responsible nation," Keating said during a press teleconference from Hawaii beamed to the Pentagon press briefing room.
In view of the recent visit to Beijing by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which was intended to improve bilateral military relations, the Chinese action "came as a surprise and it's of some concern to us," Keating said.
Keating's remarks indicated that Beijing's decision to block the carrier group could be a major irritant in efforts by Gates to improve and expand military relationships between Beijing and Washington.
However, Keating said that despite the Kitty Hawk snub, the US wants to expand so-called "mil-mil" (military-to-military) relations with China.
Nevertheless, he made it clear that the US was upset about the incident and wanted a clearer explanation from Beijing.
Keating will visit China in January, his second trip there since assuming the top US Pacific military post. He said one of the issues he would raise would be Hong Kong port calls and the flap over the Kitty Hawk visit.
Keating also took China to task for denying safe harbor in Hong Kong for two US minesweepers caught in a tropical storm just before the Kitty Hawk incident.
The ships, the Patriot and the Guardian, were operating in international waters near Hong Kong and were caught in a sudden storm. They sought shelter in Hong Kong but were turned back by the Chinese.
Keating said this incident was even more egregious than the Kitty Hawk incident, because it violated basic principles of maritime rescue.
China's refusal was "behavior that we do not consider consonant with a nation who advocates a peaceful rise and harmonious relations," Keating said.
While it remains unclear why Beijing rejected the Kitty Hawk port call, some press reports say it is was in retaliation over two US actions.
One was US President George W. Bush's decision to welcome the Dalai Lama to Washington and stand with him publicly while the Tibetan religious leader received a congressional medal.
The other was an announcement this month that the US planned to sell Taiwan up to US$939 million in upgraded ground equipment for its Patriot II anti-missile batteries, a sale that came just two months after the US agreed to a US$1.96 billion sale of 12 P-3C submarine-hunting aircraft.
Another explanation was offered by the Hong Kong-based Ming Pao daily, which said the Chinese snub was connected to a large-scale military exercise recently conducted by the Chinese Navy's Eastern and Southern Fleet in an area of the Pacific Ocean east of Taiwan and north of the Philippines.
The exercise was a drill for blockading Taiwan, it said.
"Sources ... said that during the exercise some Chinese ships ran into the Kitty Hawk's battle group in international waters sailing toward Hong Kong," an online version of the Ming Pao article said.
By refusing to allow the Kitty Hawk into Hong Kong, China "wanted to hide the details of their naval exercises and combat capability" to blockade the Taiwan Strait as part of a military attack on Taiwan, the newspaper said.