China Denies U.S. Navy Ship’s Request for Hong Kong Visit

Beijing also recalls a top admiral as U.S.-China tensions escalate


Nancy A. Youssef and Gordon Lubold (Wall Street Journal)

Updated Sept. 25, 2018 5:22 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON—The Chinese government denied a U.S. Navy ship permission for a port visit to Hong Kong in October, U.S. military officials said, a decision issued as Beijing also canceled a high-level naval meeting in the U.S.

The rebuffs come as tensions build between the two countries over a range of military and economic differences.

Last week, the State Department imposed sanctions on a Chinese military agency for buying Russia’s SU-35 combat aircraft and S-400 surface-to-air missile system, leading China to formally complain to the U.S. ambassador and acting defense attaché.

Also last week, the Trump administration announced plans to impose a 10% tariff on $200 billion of Chinese goods, which China immediately countered by announcing tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. goods. Both sets of tariffs took effect on Monday.

Chinese officials this week refused to grant permission for the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp to make a port visit to Hong Kong, U.S. officials said. Beijing also abruptly recalled Vice Adm. Shen Jinlong during a visit to the U.S.

Adm. Shen had been attending the International Seapower Symposium, a gathering of global navy officials, at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He was on his way to Washington to meet with his U.S. counterpart, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, at the Pentagon on Monday, but that visit was cancelled.

“We were informed that Vice Adm. Shen Jinlong has been recalled to China and won’t conduct a visit with Adm. Richardson. We have no additional information at this time,” said Army Lt. Col. David Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesman.

Chinese officials acknowledged through an embassy spokesperson in Washington that the dialogue had been halted.

China’s ministry of defense said on its website that Beijing would immediately recall Vice Adm. Shen and postpone the second meeting of a communication mechanism for the joint staff departments of China and the U.S., scheduled for Sept. 25-27 in Beijing.

The ministry quoted Maj. Gen. Huang Xueping, deputy head of the Central Military Commission Office for International Military Cooperation, as saying China’s military cooperation with Russia complied with international law.

Gen. Huang called the U.S. sanctions a “blatant violation of basic norms of international relations” and “a stark show of hegemony,” the ministry said.

“China demands the U.S. side immediately correct its mistake and withdraw the sanctions, and the Chinese military reserves the right to take further countermeasures,” the ministry quoted Gen. Huang as saying.

In its response to the Russia-related sanctions, the Chinese government also said it had summoned the U.S. ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, and the acting defense attaché, David Menser, on Saturday to protest.

Chinese officials didn’t offer an explanation for refusing the port visit, one U.S. official said.

“We have a long track record of successful port visits to Hong Kong, and we expect that will continue,” the State Department said in a statement. “We refer you to the Chinese Government for further information.”

Beijing always approves ship visits on a case-by-case basis, Geng Shuang, a Chinese government spokesman, said on Tuesday.

The U.S. military often heralds its relationship with other militaries around the world as immune to the political ups and downs between nations. But the denial of a request by a Navy ship to make a port visit to Hong Kong and the recall of the Navy official could presage a new chill to the U.S.-China military relationship.

These incidents followed the Pentagon’s decision in May to disinvite China from a major Pacific exercise over Beijing’s refusal to discontinue military activities on islands it claims in the South China Sea.

Also in May, the U.S. complained to Beijing after a series of laser incidents directed against American air crews near a base in Djibouti, where Chinese personnel operate.

In 2017, there were more than a dozen joint military and academic exchanges between the U.S. and China, according to a Pentagon report. That included a visit to China by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joe Dunford, and a number of other such visits by high-level Chinese officials to the U.S.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Beijing in June, although other exchange programs and high-level visits were being planned that are now in doubt, officials said.

Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said canceling port visits is one of the few military-related tools that China has to express its displeasure with the Pentagon that is both proportional and effective at messaging about “what they perceive a U.S. imperialism.”

“They will never fully cancel port visits because they want to keep that tool available to them,” Mr. Clark said, adding he expects China will approve the next U.S. request for a port visit.

In all, U.S. military ships annually conduct roughly a half-dozen such port visits in China and Hong Kong.

For the U.S., the bigger concern is the burgeoning arms sales relationship between China and Russia. Port visits, by comparison, are a short-term problem, Mr. Clark said.

Beijing previously has denied passage by U.S. military vessels as an expression of displeasure. In April 2016, a time of tension over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, it refused the U.S. aircraft carrier John C. Stennis a visit to Hong Kong.

—Jeremy Page in Beijing 
contributed to this article.

Write to Nancy A. Youssef at and Gordon Lubold at

China refused the U.S. aircraft carrier John C. Stennis a visit to Hong Kong in April 2016. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the month was August. (Sept. 25)