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US Seeks Clarification From China On Naval Dispute

By Al Pessin

US Seeks Clarification from China on Naval Dispute, But Wants to 'Move On'

The United States is seeking clarification from China on the reasons several U.S. Navy ships were denied entry to Hong Kong Harbor last week. The request comes after apparently contradictory comments by Chinese officials about the reason for the actions. But at the same time, the U.S. Defense Department says it wants to "move past" the issue.

Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman says after issuing a protest to the Chinese embassy on Wednesday, the department wants to put these incidents behind it.

"The Chinese certainly know what our concerns are on this," he said. "We were disappointed, and it was unfortunate, because we had sailors' families actually travel, but we're going to move beyond this now."

Whitman's sentiment was somewhat echoed by White House Press Secretary Dana Perino in her daily briefing, but she indicated the issue is not completely closed.

"The president believes we have good relations with China. We work cooperatively with China on so many different issues. This is one small incident. And in the big picture, in the big scheme of things, we have very good relations," she noted. "We would just like to clarify this issue."

Last week, China denied entry to Hong Kong Harbor to a U.S. aircraft carrier, which had been scheduled to make a port call. Hundreds of the crew's family members had flown to the city at their own expense to meet the ship. Earlier in the week, two smaller U.S. Navy ships were denied entry to the harbor when they sought refuge during a storm, an incident the Navy considers more serious than the canceled carrier visit, which has received more publicity.

Perino reported on Wednesday that China's foreign minister personally told President Bush the aircraft carrier was kept out of Hong Kong due to a "misunderstanding." But on Thursday, the foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing, Liu Jianchao, denied that the minister had said that.

"This kind of report does not conform to facts. We have always had U.S. military vessels visit Hong Kong following the principles of sovereignty and the situation," he said.

In other words, China decides which ships visit Hong Kong, and when.

Regarding the situation, Liu implied China's decision was related to a recent U.S. arms sale to Taiwan and to the Dalai Lama's visit to Washington last month. During the visit, President Bush appeared at a ceremony where the Congress gave the Tibetan spiritual leader a gold medal for his work advocating peace, human rights and religious understanding.

But the United States has not heard officially from China that those were the reasons for denying the ships access to Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, both Perino and Whitman said the U.S.-China relationship is strong, and said the ship incidents should not change that.

"We expect and are hopeful that we will continue to have a strong military-to-military relationship with the Chinese," he said. "We believe it's important, not only in our national interest, but in their national interest too."

China and the United States are working together on a variety of issues, including efforts to convince North Korea and Iran not to develop nuclear weapons.


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