WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China has denied a request for a U.S. carrier strike group led by the USS John C. Stennis to visit to Hong Kong, the U.S. Defense Department said on Friday, amid heightened tensions over China's territorial claims in the South China Sea.
A Pentagon spokesman, Commander Bill Urban, said a U.S. warship, the USS Blue Ridge, currently was in Hong Kong on a port visit and the United States expected that to continue.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Urban said in a statement that the request for the Hong Kong visit by the carrier and its accompanying vessels was recently denied, despite a "long track record of successful port visits to Hong Kong."
The Blue Ridge, the command ship of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, arrived in Hong Kong waters at 11:20 a.m. local time (0320 GMT) on Friday, according to the on-line log of the Hong Kong government's Marine Department.
The nuclear-powered Stennis has been conducting patrols in the South China Sea, which China claims most of and where Beijing has sparked U.S. and regional concerns by building artificial islands to bolster its claims.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited the Stennis while it transited the South China Sea on April 15 to underscore U.S. concerns about the need to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in the face of Chinese moves.
While there, he dismissed China's characterization of a more robust U.S. military presence in the region as being the cause of heightened tensions. The United States has in turn accused China of militarizing its outposts in the South China Sea by building airstrips and other facilities.
Carter made a similar stop at the USS Theodore Roosevelt in November as it transited the South China Sea near Malaysia.
The Stennis has been on a routine deployment in the Western Pacific for more than three months, the carrier strike group's commander, Rear Admiral Ronald Boxall, said earlier this month.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Greg Torode in Hong Kong; Editing by Bill Trott)