U.S. defense chief, in first, visits China's aircraft carrier

U.S. defense chief, in first, visits China
# 07 April 2014 20:05 (UTC +04:00)

Baku-APA. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took a two-hour tour around China's sole aircraft carrier on Monday, in an unprecedented opening by Beijing to a potent symbol of its military power, APA reports quoting Reuters.

The carrier visit came at the start of Hagel's three day trip to China, his first as defense secretary, and was described by one U.S. official traveling with him as an apparently genuine gesture of transparency by the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Hagel's tour of the Liaoning gave him a close-up look at the carrier's flight deck, medical facilities and living quarters and also allowed him to speak directly with Chinese sailors.

"We didn't see every space aboard the ship. But, yes, we felt this was an honest, genuine effort to be open about this brand new capability that they're trying to develop," said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official said Hagel was the first official visitor from outside China to be allowed on board the Liaoning, although that could not be immediately confirmed.

The 60,000-tonne Liaoning, a Soviet-era vessel bought from Ukraine in 1998 and re-fitted in a Chinese shipyard, is seen as a symbol of China's growing naval power and ambition for greater global influence.

The carrier has yet to become fully operational, however, and military experts say it could be decades before China catches up to the far superior and larger U.S. carriers - if ever.

The U.S. official said PLA officers were aware of the challenges ahead.

"On more than one occasion the officers that were with us said, quite frankly, that they know they have long way to go in naval aviation," the official said. "It's a difficult military capability to develop and to perfect."

Reporters traveling with Hagel, who landed in the port city of Qingdao after a trip to Japan, did not accompany him on the vessel - a rare visit to a sensitive Chinese military site.

"It's a sign of openness, of sincerity, that China has nothing to hide and wants to improve military relations with the United States," said Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

"It will also be a good opportunity for the Americans to see the difference between the Liaoning and their aircraft carriers," Ni said, referring to the technological gulf between the two countries.

Chinese security experts said Beijing could be trying to quell U.S. criticism that it was not transparent about its military modernization, which Pentagon officials suspect is aimed at countering U.S. military capabilities.

Hagel's carrier visit was a surprise when it was publicly disclosed earlier on Monday. The United States requested the tour in January and China approved it in recent weeks, the U.S. official said.

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