China bars US ship in row over support for Taiwan

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Signalling its anger over American dealings with Taiwan, China has blocked a port call by a US warship to Hong Kong and refused yesterday to say whether Vice-President Hu Jintao would go ahead with plans for a visit to the United States.

The US Consulate said yesterday that Beijing had rejected a request for a visit from 5 to 9 April by the USS Curtis Wilbur, a guided missile destroyer of the Seventh Fleet, based in Yokosuka, Japan.

A US State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said China gave no reason for the move. "We see it as a routine matter for US ships to visit Hong Kong as part of Hong Kong's status as an open and free port," he said, adding that he was not aware of any retaliatory action that the US might take against China.

The rejection came a day before the Chinese government accused Washington of committing a "series of erroneous acts" and spoiling the aura of good relations set during a February visit to Beijing by President George Bush. As often happens, the spat is over Taiwan. Beijing objected to an American decision to let Taiwan's Defence Minister, Tang Yiau-ming, attend a private defence convention this month in St Petersburg, Florida.

Since Taiwan, a former British colony, reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, Beijing has occasionally protested against US actions by barring its warships from visiting Hong Kong.

A spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry said port calls by foreign warships and aircraft were approved on a "case-by-case basis". She declined to say whether the Vice-Presidentwould go ahead with his US visit, expected in April or May. Instead, she demanded that Washington "cease interfering in China's internal affairs by using Taiwan issues and undermining bilateral ties".

The Chinese Premier, Zhu Rongji, told the visiting US senators Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Ted Stevens of Alaska that Mr Tang's trip to Florida was one of "a series of actions that violated" China-US relations, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported. "The Chinese government and people feel nothing but strong indignation over the actionand firmly oppose the carrying out of any similar acts," he said.

China and Taiwan split amid a civil war on the mainland in 1949. Beijing says it will attack Taiwan if the island declares independence or delays too long in talks over uniting with the mainland. It has sought to isolate Taiwan diplomatically.

America severed formal ties with Taiwan in 1979 when Washington recognised China. Since then, high-level meetings between US and Taiwanese officials have been rare. US arms sales to Taiwan's government have long been a sore point. Washington does not dispute Beijing's claim to Taiwan, but argues that it must help the island defend itself.