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China Denies 'Misunderstanding' About US Ships

The Chinese government has denied that a "misunderstanding" led to its refusal to allow U.S. warships to dock in Hong Kong, and has hinted it may be retaliating for recent U.S. actions. The Pentagon had earlier protested the refusals and said China's explanation was not sufficient. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

The White House quoted Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi as telling President Bush on Wednesday that the refusal to allow several U.S. ships to dock in Hong Kong last week was a "misunderstanding."

But Beijing has dismissed that report. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters that Yang never made the comment.

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

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said the Pentagon protested the refusals this week after summoning the military attaché from China's embassy in Washington. Morrell said the Pentagon was not satisfied with China's response.

"It is baffling," he said. "It is regrettable. And we have not to date received a sufficient explanation as to why it took place."

China last week suddenly withdrew permission for a scheduled visit to Hong Kong by the USS Kitty Hawk battle group. Separately, permission for two U.S. minesweepers to pull into Hong Kong during a storm was also refused last week.

Beijing reversed itself without explanation in the case of the Kitty Hawk group and said the ships could dock after all, but by then the ships were already steaming back to their home base in Japan. Crew-members' relatives who had flown to Hong Kong to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with their loved ones, some from as far as the United States, were left stranded.

Liu says relations between China and the United States are quite good overall. But he also said Beijing is not happy that U.S. leaders met in Washington recently with the Dalai Lama, who China considers a traitor. And he said Beijing is unhappy over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province.

He did not specifically say these were the reasons for the refusals, but this was the first time a Chinese official has mentioned them in conjunction with a discussion of the ship incidents.