U.S. lodges formal protest with China
Bush questions a visiting official about Beijing's refusal to permit naval vessels access to Hong Kong.


By Julian E. Barnes, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 29, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Tensions between the U.S. and China rose slightly Wednesday as the Pentagon lodged a formal protest over Beijing's refusal to permit American naval vessels access to Hong Kong and President Bush questioned the visiting Chinese foreign minister about last week's snub.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said that China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, told Bush the issue was a "misunderstanding."

Perino said Bush first raised the issue in a White House meeting, but said she could not detail the nature of the misunderstanding.

Some experts on U.S.-Asian military relations saw the matter as an outgrowth of discomfort among hard-liners in China with the Bush administration's open-armed welcome last month of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Chinese-held Tibet.

"There is a lot of deep anxiety about the Dalai Lama, and you see a host of signals being sent about that discomfort," said Kurt Campbell, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense responsible for Asia. "The Kitty Hawk was meant to send a signal of profound displeasure."

The Pentagon's formal protest was lodged by a senior Defense official, David Sedney, who called Beijing's defense attache in Washington to the Pentagon to accept the objection. The complaint focused on the Chinese refusal to allow the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and several accompanying vessels to make a scheduled stop in Hong Kong on Thanksgiving.

Two top Navy admirals on Tuesday sharply criticized the Chinese refusal to accommodate the Kitty Hawk as well as, earlier, two minesweepers, the Patriot and the Guardian, which had sought refuge in Hong Kong on Nov. 20 to refuel and to escape an approaching storm. Navy officials said refusing any ship safe harbor in a storm is a breach of maritime traditions.

Relations between the U.S. military and the People's Liberation Army of China are complex. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates visited Beijing on Nov. 5, hoping to help improve relations and increase the number of contacts between the two forces.

"I'm aware of no hiccups at all in our efforts to increase military-to-military cooperation, exchanges with the Chinese," said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell. "I think that's why this incident is so baffling to us, because there was no indication at all prior to the Kitty Hawk being refused entry to the port of Hong Kong that there was any reason or any cause for concern."

China's leaders may be upset over U.S. acceptance of the Dalai Lama, considered a secessionist threat by Beijing.

But Campbell, now chief executive of a Washington think tank, the Center for a New American Security, said other Chinese leaders are anxious to avoid increased U.S. attention so they can further build their influence in the region.

"Its essential strategy is to do nothing that would cause the United States to refocus on Asia," Campbell said. "That means sometimes eating some humble pie."

Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Pentagon China expert, said Beijing's refusal to give safe harbor to the minesweepers was more distressing than the Kitty Hawk incident because it showed disregard for international law.

"It shows extreme bad faith if they are going to judge things on their own sense of pique," Mitchell said.

U.S. military officials were under pressure to criticize China from military families who had flown to Hong Kong at personal expense to meet the sailors for Thanksgiving.

"The explanation is really due to the families of those sailors who, at great personal cost, had made arrangements to go visit their loved ones over Thanksgiving" in Hong Kong, expecting the Kitty Hawk to port there as planned, Morrell said.

Yang, the Chinese foreign minister, was visiting the White House on Wednesday for talks on North Korea and Iran.

Navy officials had said the destroyer Curtis Wilbur was the last ship to be denied access to Hong Kong, in 2002.

But Navy Cmdr. Pamela Kunze later added that another U.S. vessel, the U.S. submarine City of Corpus Christi, was denied access to Hong Kong in 2004.

In both cases, the Chinese government offered no reason for the refusals.