USS Kitty Hawk "did not have approval to visit HK"
HONG KONG (Reuters) - The head of U.S. forces in the Pacific said on Thursday the USS Kitty Hawk, banned from entering Hong Kong in November, had not obtained final permission from China before setting off from its home base in Japan.
The aircraft carrier and its strike group were refused permission by Beijing to dock in Hong Kong for a long-planned Thanksgiving holiday visit in November, causing a bilateral row.
Asked if it had had approval to dock in Hong Kong, Admiral Timothy Keating said: "My understanding is it did not. It got close, the captain of the ship ... realised they didn't have permission so they turned around and started back home."
A bilateral agreement stipulates that the United States must apply for port visits at least 30 days in advance, while China should grant or reject such requests five days before arrival.
But on the morning of the Kitty Hawk's approach to Hong Kong, sources familiar with the situation said Beijing still hadn't given approval for entry, with the aircraft carrier strike group was forced to wait outside Hong Kong.
Beijing later said the ships could dock, but by then the aircraft carrier and its strike group were heading back to Japan.
Keating, who has just concluded a visit to Beijing, said he was upbeat the situation wouldn't be repeated, with a pending request for another ship, the USS Blue Ridge, to visit Hong Kong in the coming weeks.
"Our Chinese hosts didn't say no to the pending request. I'm hopeful, I'm optimistic, I bet that our request will be approved. I don't have any inside information however," Keating told a news conference.
But he criticized Beijing for refusing a distress port visit to Hong Kong in November by two minesweepers that were low on fuel and facing bad weather, saying it was a "serious concern."
Despite the recent tension, Keating said he had built a closer rapport with China's military brass and had even urged his counterparts to engage in joint military exercises.
(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie)