China turned down another request for a U.S Navy ship to visit Hong Kong amid

Senior Navy officials said that Beijing denied permission for the USS Reuben James, a Navy frigate, to make a holiday port call for sailors last week.

On November 22, China made a late reversal of its decision to bar the Kitty Hawk but by then the ship was steaming away from Hong Kong and could not return, U.S. officials have said.

But when China told the United States it was reversing course, it also rejected a request for the USS Reuben James, a frigate with about 200 crew, to visit Hong Kong over the New Year holiday, a Pentagon spokesman said.

U.S. officials are baffled about the reason or reasons for the port call refusals. China's actions have prompted speculation it wanted to show irritation over U.S. plans to help Taiwan upgrade its missile system and a meeting between President George W. Bush and exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

Beijing sees Taiwan as a renegade province and the Dalai Lama as a separatist trying to win independence for Tibet, which Chinese troops invaded in 1950.

Some 50 U.S. Navy ships visit Hong Kong every year, the official said, about the same amount as before Britain returned the territory to Chinese rule in 1997.