BEIJING — The Pentagon soon will ask China to approve a port call by a U.S. Navy vessel in Hong Kong, and will be watching the response as "kind of a signal flare" for whether China wants improving relations, a senior U.S. military officer said Tuesday.
China denied a port call to the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier and its escort ships over Thanksgiving, and turned away two minesweepers fleeing stormy seas and an Air Force aircraft taking supplies to the U.S. consulate there.
Adm. Timothy Keating, the chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, based in Hawaii, said he told Chinese officials "we were unhappy that the (Kitty Hawk) visit was canceled."
"We are very anxious to ensure our ability to visit Hong Kong," Keating said. He said he'd told Chinese diplomats and military leaders that the Pentagon would ask for the green light for another U.S. naval vessel to visit Hong Kong "fairly soon."
Keating said leaders of the People's Liberation Army didn't explain why China turned away the U.S. vessels last November. He said, though, that Chinese diplomats and military leaders had indicated that the new U.S. request would "receive favorable consideration."
Keating said the request would serve as a test to determine the level of "trust and confidence and transparency" that Chinese military leaders desired with the Pentagon.
"We think it's kind of a signal flare for positive improving relations," he said.
Keating's announcement came a day after a Chinese general brushed aside concerns about his nation's growing military strength, and suggested that the Kitty Hawk carrier group was turned away from Hong Kong because of procedural irregularities.
"The distance between China and U.S. militaries is big. If you fear China's military buildup, you don't have much courage," Gen. Chen Bingde, the chief of General Staff of the army, said Monday. "We don't have the ability to make you afraid of us."
Of the Kitty Hawk, Chen said: "If your ship wants to stop by in Hong Kong, you have to follow the international rules and go through some procedures."
Keating said he didn't know to what Chen was referring. But he said he was sure that "whatever international rules were required to be observed . . . were observed."
Some 50 U.S. naval vessels a year usually make port calls in Hong Kong.
Keating defended the decision after the port denial to send the Kitty Hawk, three guided missile destroyers and a guided missile cruiser through the narrow Taiwan Strait, a potential military flash point barely 100 miles wide. China claims the independently governed island of Taiwan as part of its territory.
"We don't need China's permission to go through the Taiwan Strait. It is international water. We will exercise our free right of passage whenever and wherever we choose," Keating said, adding that "the weather was pretty crummy" in Pacific waters outside Taiwan, making a strait transit desirable as the ships sailed toward Japan.
The last time an entire U.S. carrier group went through the strait was in 2002.
Keating said frictions over the port calls and the Taiwan Strait transit showed the need for transparency and dialogue between the U.S. and Chinese militaries.
"We don't want to be confrontational about this," Keating said of the strait transit. "I understand that China's going to go, 'Hey, what are you doing here?' Well, we'll explain. And that goes to (improving) transparency. If they have a question, ask. We'll tell them the truth. So, too, would we request that sort of healthy robust dialogue in the case of a denial of a port-visit request. . . . Yes or no, and here's why."
News media speculation over why China denied the port visits focused on Chinese unhappiness over U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan and the awarding in October to the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, of the highest medal that the U.S. Congress offers.
In other remarks, Keating said the Pentagon had invited China's military to take part in Cobra Gold, a multinational exercise in Thailand in May.
He strongly urged China to take steps toward greater transparency about its military and the intent of a buildup to avoid the risk of missteps with U.S. forces, including the possibility of conflict between submarine fleets.
"The Chinese military is developing impressive capabilities. We are watching carefully," Keating said, noting U.S. concern about China's development of cruise and ballistic missiles, anti-satellite technology and special weapons to deny access to territory or sea.
Keating, who made his first visit to China as U.S. Pacific commander last May, said one reason for his follow-up visit "is to express our interest — in fact our requirement — for transparency with the Chinese military."