Two of the Navy's top admirals said Tuesday that China's refusal to let a U.S. aircraft carrier make a Thanksgiving port call at Hong Kong was surprising and troubling.
"This is perplexing. It's not helpful," Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in a video teleconference from his headquarters at Camp Smith, Hawaii. He also called it distressing and irritating but later said it should not be viewed as "calamitous."
"It's not, in our view, conduct that is indicative of a country that understands its obligations as a responsible nation," he said, adding that he hopes it does not indicate a lasting blockage of port visits.
The USS Kitty Hawk, which has its home port near Tokyo, was forced to return early to Japan when Chinese authorities at the last minute barred the warship and its escort vessels from entering Hong Kong harbor.
Keating said that by the time the Chinese acted, hundreds of family members of sailors aboard the Kitty Hawk had already flown to Hong Kong from their homes in Japan to join in the port visit.
No word from China's military
Asked about seeking an explanation from the Chinese, Keating said he had heard nothing from Chinese military authorities and that it would be a matter for the State Department to pursue. He said he did not expect the Chinese to apologize.
In separate remarks at the Pentagon, Adm. Gary Roughead, in his first Pentagon interview since becoming the chief of naval operations eight weeks ago, described the Chinese action as disruptive.
"That was surprising and not helpful," Roughead said. "The Kitty Hawk had been planning to go in there and it was disruptive to many people's plans."
Roughead, who was commander of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific before he replaced Adm. Mike Mullen as chief of naval operations on Sept. 29, said he was even more troubled by China's refusal, several days before the Kitty Hawk incident, to let two U.S. Navy minesweepers enter Hong Kong harbor to escape an approaching storm and receive fuel. The minesweepers, the Patriot and the Guardian, were instead refueled at sea and returned safely to their home port in Japan, he said.
"As someone who has been going to sea all my life, if there is one tenet that we observe it's when somebody is in need you provide (assistance) and you sort it out later," the admiral said. "And that, to me, was more bothersome, so I look forward to having discussions with the PLA navy leadership," he said, referring to the People's Liberation Army.
Violation of unwritten code of the sea?
Keating made a similar point. He called the denial in the case of the minesweeping ships "a different kettle of fish for us — in some ways more disturbing, more perplexing" than the Kitty Hawk case because the Chinese action violated an unwritten international code for assisting ships in distress.
Prior to last week's incidents, the last time a U.S. Navy ship was denied entry to Hong Kong harbor was in 2002, according to Cmdr. Pamela Kunze, spokeswoman for Roughead.
Keating said he still hopes to visit China in mid-January to discuss, among other things, Hong Kong port visits and ways to strengthen U.S.-China military relations. He added that the Beijing government has not yet approved his visit.
Roughead said China's actions would not stop the U.S. Navy from seeking future port visits to Hong Kong.
"Hong Kong remains a very welcoming place for our sailors to be when they get there and it remains one of the world's great cities where sailors for centuries have gone, and it's still part of the draw of why young men and women choose to do what we do. It will remain a port of interest," he said.