WASHINGTON: China has denied the US aircraft carrier USS Stennis and accompanying naval vessels permission to make a port call in Hong Kong, a Pentagon spokesman said Friday (Saturday in Manila).
It was not immediately known what prompted the Chinese action, but it comes amid growing tension between the two countries over Beijing’s moves to assert its claims to much of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
“We were recently informed that a request for a port visit by a US carrier strike group, including the USS John C Stennis and accompanying vessels, to Hong Kong was denied,” Commander Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, said.
“We have a long track record of successful port visits to Hong Kong, including with the current visit of the USS Blue Ridge, and we expect that will continue,” he added.
It was the first time US naval ships had been denied permission to make a Hong Kong port call since August 2014, Urban said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper that port calls by US ships are decided on a “case by case basis in accordance with sovereignty principles and specific circumstances.”
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited the Stennis on April 15 as it sailed off the Philippines near the disputed area where China has expanded islets and reefs into islands capable of supporting airfields and other installations.
During a preceding stop in Manila, Carter had emphasized that the United States would support the Philippines and other allies as they faced “coercion and intimidation.”
The two countries also announced they have begun joint naval patrols in the South China Sea, and Carter said a contingent of 275 US troops and five A-10 ground attack aircraft in the Philippines for an annual exercise would remain in the country until the end of the month.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, through which pass some of the world’s most active shipping lanes. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.
Meanwhile, the US Departments of State and Treasury confirmed that officials will hold a Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) meeting with their Chinese counterparts in June.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew will join their respective Chinese co-chairmen, State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Vice Premier Wang Yang, along with members of the US delegation and their Chinese colleagues for the dialogue to be held in Beijing, a statement released to Southeast Asian journalists said.
“The discussion will focus on the challenges and opportunities that both countries face on a wide range of bilateral, regional, and global areas of immediate and long-term economic and strategic interest,” it said.
Kerry will join Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong for the seventh annual US-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange (CPE) also to be held in June.
“The CPE promotes and strengthens ties between the US and China in the fields of education, culture, health, science and technology, sports, and women’s issues.
Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Cuisia Jr. said that the bilateral meeting will be an opportunity to dissuade China from activities that may further escalate tension in the disputed West Philippines Sea (South China Sea).
“That’s their regular, strategic and economic dialogue, and I’m sure that’s going to be one of the topics again,” the diplomat said.
The meeting will be held following reports that China will begin land reclamation activities at Panatag (Scarborough) shoal this year.
“We hope the US…would be able to convince China not to proceed with that (reclamation),” Cuisia said.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Jose Rene Almendras did not say if the Philippines will try to stop China from proceeding with the reclamation work.
“We are the Department of Foreign Affairs. Our role is to make sure those diplomatic channels are in place. I will never make a comment that will hamper on any diplomatic initiative or channel that can be pursued,” he told reporters in an ambush interview.
The European Union (EU) echoed Almendras’ comment.
“We have to see if the report is verified or not. We are, of course monitoring the (result) of the arbitration case very, very closely. Let’s see what’s happening there first. Let’s see if it is verified first,” Ambassador Franz Jessen said.