BEIJING (Reuters) - The saga of a U.S. aircraft carrier denied entry to Hong Kong at Thanksgiving took a bizarre turn on Thursday when China denied saying the whole affair had been a misunderstanding.
The White House said Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had told President George W. Bush the incident was a misunderstanding on Wednesday.
Washington has said China denied the USS Kitty Hawk, and eight accompanying ships, entry to Hong Kong for a long-planned visit during the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday last week. China later changed its mind but the ships were already heading for Japan, U.S. officials say.
“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 told a news conference.
“China approved the visit of the Kitty Hawk group to Hong Kong based on humanitarian reasons. The decision made by the U.S. later was up to them.” He did not elaborate.
There has been speculation China’s move to block the ships was related to irritation over U.S. plans to help Taiwan upgrade its missile system and a meeting between Bush and exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
The White House said it was now seeking clarification from China due to conflicting accounts of the meeting with Bush.
“The president’s understanding from the foreign minister yesterday was that there had been a misunderstanding and a miscommunication,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
“We are seeking clarification. Regardless, it was wrong for the ship to be turned away.”
The Pentagon called in China’s military attache on Wednesday to protest about the Kitty Hawk case and what it says was another incident, in which China denied access last week to two U.S. Navy minesweepers seeking refuge from a storm.
But U.S. defense officials sought on Thursday to put the disagreements behind them.
“This was an unfortunate incident but we’re going to move past it,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
“We expect and are hopeful that we will continue to have a strong military-to-military relationship with the Chinese. We believe it’s important, not only in our national interest but in their national interest too.”
Adding to the confusion, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu earlier denied receiving a U.S. complaint.
The dispute has come as a surprise just weeks after a visit to China by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates that has been described by U.S. officials as positive.
China-U.S. relations have improved since 2001, when their militaries broke contact following a collision between a Chinese fighter jet and U.S. spy plane.
But many differences remain over issues such as China’s military build-up and U.S. weapon sales to Taiwan.
Liu said he thought generally that Sino-U.S. ties were developing well but expressed some dissatisfaction.
“We think that generally communication, talks and exchanges are progressing smoothly. Both sides have smooth communication on bilateral and international issues,” he added.
“But it should be pointed out that recently, bilateral relations have been interfered with and damaged by mistaken actions by the U.S. For examples, U.S. leaders have met the Dalai Lama,” Liu said.
“Also on the Taiwan question, China approves of the U.S. opposing Taiwan’s U.N. entry referendum,” he added. “At the same time, we have grave concern with U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Washington