In April, the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis had a port call permit request rejected, with Chinese officials stressing that such requests are granted on a case-by-case basis "in accordance with sovereignty principles."
The incident was seen as a sign of deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing over South China Sea tensions. But relations may be improving. On Thursday, two US Navy ships were allowed to dock in the port city.
The ships, the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard and the amphibious transport dock Green Bay, carried 3,600 sailors and marines and were recently conducting operations in the Western Pacific.
"We have encountered nothing but professional mariner behavior from the Chinese vessels we interacted with," Rear Adm. Marc Dalton, head of the US 7th Fleet’s amphibious force, told reporters, according to the Japan Times.
Dalton declined to discuss the Stennis incident.
"I have only been in command since August. That all happened before I was out here. I can’t really have an opinion on it. Any issue [of that kind] would be political and [I] leave that to the diplomats."
At the time, an op-ed published in China’s state-run Global Times suggested that the decision to reject the Stennis’ port call request was the result of a "series of tricks" by the US.
"The US Pacific Fleet has now become the biggest source of such a pessimistic mentality for both countries," the paper said, adding that “the US abruptly started its menacing military deployment against China’s offshore interests, showcasing its military muscle by sending naval vessels and warplanes to China.
"Due to the severe strategic suspicions, military problems have unprecedentedly emerged between the two."
Central to the conflict is Beijing’s construction of a series of artificial islands in the South China Sea. The US and its Pacific allies are worried that the land reclamation projects will be used to establish an air defense zone, while China maintains it has every right to build within its own territory and that the islands will be used for primarily humanitarian purposes.
A highly contested region through which roughly $5 trillion in international trade passes annually, most of the South China Sea is claimed by China, though there overlapping claims by Brunei, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
Still, tensions may be de-escalating. In addition to Thursday’s visit, the USS Benfold was also permitted to dock in the port city of Qingdao last month.
"Sailors are sailors at the end of the day, be it in the East or in the West; we all face the same challenges at sea," said Cmdr. Justin L. Harts in a statement from the US Navy.
"These similarities unite us. I am sure that by the end of the week we will see that American sailors and Chinese sailors are as close as any other sailors out on the high seas."