The top US military commander in the Pacific said on Thursday he was "perplexed and concerned" by China's last-minute decision to deny a US aircraft carrier entry to Hong Kong for a previously scheduled port visit.
The USS Kitty Hawk and its escort ships were due to dock in Hong Kong for a four-day visit on Wednesday until they were refused access. Hundreds of family members who had flown to Hong Kong to spend Thanksgiving with their sailors were stranded by the move.
"It's hard to put any kind of positive spin on this," Admiral Timothy Keating told the media in a telephone interview from his airplane on his way home from visiting US and coalition troops in Iraq.
China later reversed its decision and said the ships could enter on humanitarian grounds, but the notice came while the vessels were already on their way back to their home ports. The vessels chose not to turn around.
It was the second time in a week China refused to let US Navy ships into the port.
Keating said two US mine-sweepers seeking to refuel and looking for shelter from bad weather in the South China Sea had asked for permission to enter Hong Kong three or four days before the Kitty Hawk incident. But these ships also were denied, he said.
The developments come as the US military has been trying to increase personal ties with the Chinese military to prevent misunderstandings and the potential for miscalculation.
Chinese warships visited US naval bases in Pearl Harbor and San Diego last year, and the two navies have since held basic exercises together.
High-level commanders have traveled back and forth between the two Pacific powers, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Beijing earlier this month.
Keating, who heads the US Pacific Command from its Hawaii headquarters, said he was unaware of any reason for China's decision.
"It's my understanding the Chinese just said `no,'" he said.
China has in the past barred US Navy ships from Hong Kong when bilateral relations have been strained.
In recent weeks, the two sides have had disagreements over trade, Iran's nuclear program and the US Congress awarding a medal to the Dalai Lama.