TOKYO — Thousands of sailors aboard the USS Kitty Hawk and its carrier battle group had to mark the Thanksgiving holiday at sea after they were denied entry to Hong Kong for a port call that had been planned months in advance, U.S. Navy officials said Friday.
Hundreds of sailors’ families had flown to the city to spend the holiday with their loved ones, while dozens of Americans living in Hong Kong had prepared turkey dinners for those without visiting relatives.
In an unusual last-minute decision, China turned the ships away as they neared the port. It later reversed its decision, but by that time the aircraft carrier, along with four warships and a nuclear submarine, were already leaving the area for their home ports in Japan.
“The crew members were disappointed, but that did not deter them from celebrating Thanksgiving on the ships with meals and movies,” said Lt. Cmdr. Steven Curry, a spokesman for the 7th Fleet, which has its home port in Yokosuka, just south of Tokyo.
Beijing has given no reason for refusing the ships’ entry, but it was the second time in a week it has done so.
Two U.S. minesweepers seeking to refuel and shelter from bad weather in the South China Sea had asked for permission to enter Hong Kong three or four days before the Kitty Hawk. Those ships were denied, according to Adm. Timothy Keating, who heads the U.S. Pacific Command.
Curry said the latest development was a surprise.
“It had been planned for several months,” he said. “We go there many times a year.”
China has in the past barred U.S. Navy ships from Hong Kong during periods of strained relations. In recent weeks, the two countries have had disagreements over trade, Iran’s nuclear program and Congress’s awarding a medal to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader whom China’s Communist government considers an enemy.
China and the U.S. have also increasingly been at odds over Beijing’s swelling military budget and rapidly modernizing naval and air forces. Last year, a Chinese submarine surfaced just 5 miles away from the Kitty Hawk and its escorts during exercises off Okinawa.
Hong Kong has long been a favored port of call for the U.S. military but Beijing’s approval has been required since July 1, 1997, when Britain handed the former colony back to China.
In Hong Kong, port officials said they had not been notified of the previously scheduled visit. Asked repeatedly about Beijing decision, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Liu declined to comment. In reversing its position, Beijing indicated that it was only grudgingly going to allow the ships in.
“We have decided to allow the Kitty Hawk strike group to stay in Hong Kong during Thanksgiving, and it is a decision out of humanitarian consideration only,” Liu told reporters at a regular media briefing in Beijing later Thursday.
Decision reversed too late
U.S. Navy officials said that by the time Beijing had changed its mind, the ships were already 250 miles away from the port.
“After the USS Kitty Hawk carrier strike group had been refused entry into the port of Hong Kong, building seas and deteriorating weather conditions necessitated the strike group’s departure from the area,” the 7th Fleet said in a statement.
The 46-year-old USS Kitty Hawk is the only U.S. aircraft carrier permanently deployed abroad. The diesel-powered ship is to be decommissioned next year and replaced by the nuclear-powered USS George Washington.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.