HONG KONG- The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Nimitz sailed into Hong Kong on schedule on Wednesday despite a Chinese pledge to suspend military exchanges with the United States after its announced arms sales to Taiwan.
Speculation had swirled on whether China might prevent the Nimitz from visiting over the $6.4 billion arms sales and in retaliation for a planned meeting between the Dalai Lama and U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House on Thursday.
For us, this is a routine port visit, said John Miller, the Commanding Officer and Rear Admiral of the Nimitz strike group.
We had a request pending, and about a week or so ago it was approved and we've been on our way ever since, he told reporters aboard the aircraft carrier, which had sailed from Malaysia with four accompanying ships.
He offered no comment, however, when asked whether military exchanges would be held with China during the four-day visit.
Hong Kong has been a favorite destination for U.S. sailors on R&R since the Vietnam War. Some of the nearly 6,000 sailors in the strike group, anchored in the western reaches of Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor on a cold and wet day, soon spilled ashore to the lively Wanchai bar district.
Tensions with Washington have arisen over issues from trade and currencies to the U.S. plan to sell $6.4 billion of weapons to self-ruled Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.
Miller played down tensions, calling China a like-minded nation while praising its role in multilateral anti-piracy missions off the Horn of Africa.
We're nations that don't always agree on a variety of issues, but can find agreement, and certainly counter-piracy is one of those examples, he said.
While U.S. warships have long made periodic port calls to the former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997, China has barred U.S. ships from entering at sensitive moments.
In 2007, the USS Kitty Hawk was denied entry to Hong Kong as it neared the city's waters for a Thanksgiving visit.
Analysts linked the refusal to then-U.S. President George W. Bush awarding the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, one of the country's highest honors, to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader branded a separatist by China.
The Nimitz, whose home port is San Diego, recently completed a five-month tour of duty in the North Arabian Sea, where it supported U.S. operations in Afghanistan. The carrier group will resume its routine deployment in the Western Pacific.
(Additional reporting by Phillip Stewart in Washington, Editing by Ron Popeski and Don Durfee)