US criticizes China for barring US ships from port

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WASHINGTON, Nov 27 (Reuters) Senior US military officers today criticized China for denying a US Navy aircraft carrier group and two smaller ships access to the Hong Kong port, saying Beijing was not living up to its obligations as a ''responsible nation.'' China last week denied the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier and eight ships traveling with it entry to Hong Kong for a long-planned Thanksgiving holiday visit.

Separately, China also denied access to two smaller US Navy ships, the USS Guardian and USS Patriot, seeking refuge from an approaching storm.

''This is perplexing,'' said US Navy Adm Timothy Keating, commander of the US Pacific Command, which is responsible for all US military activities in the Pacific region.

''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,'' he told reporters in Washington by videolink from Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii.

China has not explained its decision to block US access to that port, said Keating and Adm. Gary Roughead, the US chief of naval operations.

Beijing's action came as a surprise just weeks after a visit to China by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates that has been described by US officials as positive.

Relations between China and the United States have improved since 2001, when the countries' militaries broke contact following a collision between a Chinese fighter jet and US spy plane.

But many differences remain between Beijing and Washington over China's military build-up, US weapon sales to Taiwan and the countries' positions on international issues.

SAILORS SEEKING REFUGE Keating and Roughead said China's decision to deny access to the two smaller ships was more troubling than its decision to block the Kitty Hawk, because it involved sailors in need of refuge.

''As someone who has been going to sea all my life, if there's one tenet that we observe it's when somebody's in need, you provide and you sort it out later,'' Roughead said.

Both Keating and Roughead said China's actions did not signal that Hong Kong was no longer a reliable port for U.S.

ships. They said the incidents underscored the need for more cooperation between the Chinese and US militaries so that the intentions of each is better understood.

The Guardian and Patriot are small ships that detect and destroy mines. They carry crews of about 80 sailors apiece.

The ships were conducting a mission in international waters and needed to refuel and find safe harbor due to tropical storm activity. When denied access to Hong Kong, they refueled elsewhere and avoided the storm, the officers said.

Keating said he wanted to visit China in January and would discuss the issue then. China has not granted him permission to visit yet, he noted.

Reuters AK VP0305

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