WASHINGTON – China denied a third U.S. Navy ship the ability to port in Hong Kong harbor at the same time that the USS Kitty Hawk was denied portage the day before Thanksgiving, a senior Defense Department official tells FOX News.
China denied the frigate the USS Reuben James permission to enter and port at Hong Kong harbor for New Year's Eve. The Reuben James had placed its request with Beijing back in October, according to the official, who was speaking on background. This is the third such incident disclosed in the past week and is adding to strained U.S.-Sino relations.
The incident involving the Kitty Hawk forced the ship to turn around, stranding hundreds of Navy families who had flown in to celebrate Thanksgiving with their family members aboard the ship.
The incident also is having a diplomatic impact. Japan has sided with the United States in the building dispute and is refusing to board a Chinese naval vessel visiting a Japanese harbor at Yokusaka. The Chinese visit was supposed to be a historic diplomatic ice-breaking visit to Japan by the Chinese navy.
The Associated Press reported that shortly after the Kitty Hawk was turned away, the Chinese reversed their decision and said the ship could enter the harbor, but by then the ship was too far out to sea. During that notification, the Chinese also told the Navy that the Reuben James visit was being denied. No reason was given for the refusal.
The official said the denial was both over the phone and in writing, and added that there are no other pending requests for US ship visits to the Hong Kong harbor.
Until now, the Navy has considered Hong Kong one of the sailors' favorite post of call, with about 50 ship visits per year.
In addition to the Kitty Hawk and the Reuben James, the Chinese also refused to let two Navy minesweepers enter Hong Kong harbor to escape an approaching storm and receive fuel -- an incident Navy officials said it found far more disturbing since it violates an international rule of the sea to provide safe harbor for vessels in trouble.
The minesweepers, the Patriot and the Guardian, were instead refueled at sea and returned safely to their home port in Japan.
Prior to the latest three incidents, the most recent port visit denial came in 2004.
China has hinted that Congress' honoring of the Dalai Lama and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan triggered the problems, which have cast a new shadow over military relations between the two countries.
The Pentagon summoned a Chinese military attache to protest the decision, which the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, called "perplexing." President Bush raised the issue with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during their talks on North Korea, Iran and other issues.
FOX News' Jennifer Griffin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.