China warns US to keep out of Taiwan

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The Australian
Rowan Callick
China correspondent
December 06, 2007

A ROW between China and the US over port visits to Hong Kong has extended into a renewed move by Beijing to prevent foreign naval vessels sailing through the 180km-wide Taiwan Strait.

The first of a series of incidents causing friction between the countries came last month, when two US minesweepers, the Patriot and the Guardian, were caught in a tropical storm in the South China Sea.

They sought shelter in Hong Kong's deep harbour, but their request was rejected.

Under Hong Kong's constitution, defence and foreign relations issues are the responsibility of Beijing.

Admiral Gary Roughead, the US chief of naval operations, 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 - and you sort it out later."

Since the return of Hong Kong to China a decade ago, routine US naval visits have continued, averaging about 50 a year.

The next incident happened as the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and its eight escort ships, which had been at sea for weeks, neared Hong Kong for a long-planned port visit for Thanksgiving Day on November 22.

China suddenly denied the ships access, and they returned to their base in Yokosuka, Japan. China reversed the decision only when the ships had sailed.

About 300 relatives of the sailors had flown to Hong Kong to join them for Thanksgiving. And Hong Kong's tourism industry was disappointed too. The latest Asia Weekly cover features a girl in a cheongsam dress sobbing as an aircraft carrier sails away, headed: "The sad world of Suzie Wong."

China also denied access to the US frigate Reuben James for a New Year visit, and halted the routine quarterly visit of a C-17 cargo supply plane to support the US consulate in Hong Kong.

On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China had "expressed grave concern to the US" about its ships traversing the Taiwan Strait, "and requested it to take prudent actions in this sensitive area".

Theories about this behaviour have focused on the US decision to sell Taiwan an anti-missile defence system, and President George W. Bush's meeting with the Dalai Lama, or on Chinese navy war games in the South China Sea.