WASHINGTON/HONG KONG • Beijing has denied a request for an American carrier strike group led by the USS John C. Stennis to visit Hong Kong, the US Defence Department has said, amid heightened tensions over China's territorial claims in the South China Sea.
A Pentagon spokesman, Commander Bill Urban, on Friday said the USS Blue Ridge, a warship, was in Hong Kong on a port visit and the US expected that to continue.
He said the request for the Hong Kong visit by the carrier and its accompanying vessels, which have been patrolling the South China Sea, was recently denied, despite a "long track record of successful port visits to Hong Kong".
A US Navy official, who did not want to be identified, said the Chinese Foreign Ministry's commissioner in Hong Kong conveyed Beijing's denial of visit, saying it was "not convenient" at this time.
China's Foreign Ministry, in a statement to Reuters yesterday, did not directly provide a reason for the denial. "On the visits of US military ships and aircraft to Hong Kong, China has always approved them on a case-by-case basis in accordance with the principle of sovereignty and the specific situation," it said, without elaborating.
The nuclear-powered Stennis has been conducting patrols in the South China Sea, most of which Beijing lays claim to and where China has sparked US and regional concerns by building artificial islands to bolster its claims.
Defence Secretary Ash Carter visited the Stennis while it transited the South China Sea on April 15 to underscore US concerns about the need to maintain freedom of navigation in the face of Chinese moves.
A wide range of US military vessels and aircraft have long routinely stopped in Hong Kong, a reflection of the "one country, two systems" formula under which Britain handed the global financial hub back to China in 1997.
The visits have occasionally been suspended in periods of heightened tensions, such as after a mid-air collision between an American EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese plane off China's Hainan island in 2001.
The USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier also was denied permission to enter Hong Kong over Thanksgiving in 2007, but was cleared to visit five months later. The navy official said a visit by the USS Halsey also was denied in 2014.
The United States has stressed the importance of good relations with China's military to avoid misunderstandings and Chinese military officers are invited routinely aboard US ships during port visits, and are sometimes flown out to land on US carriers at sea.
While aboard the Stennis, Mr Carter dismissed China's characterisation of a more robust US military presence in the region as being the cause of heightened tensions. Washington has in turn accused Beijing of militarising its outposts in the South China Sea by building airstrips and other facilities.
Mr Carter made a similar stop on the USS Theodore Roosevelt in November last year as it transited the South China Sea near Malaysia.