US 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.
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 US official traveling with him as an apparently genuine gesture of transparency by the People'sLiberation 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 US 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 US carriers — if ever.
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 US criticism that it was not transparent about its military modernization, which Pentagon officials suspect is aimed at countering US 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 US official said.
Chinese officials regularly visit US aircraft carriers
Chinese military brass are no strangers to U.S. warships, including aircraft carriers.
Officers from the PLA are routinely flown to U.S. aircraft carriers en route to occasional port stops in Hong Kong, according to U.S. military officials.
Their US counterparts provide tours of the ship and flight deck during operations — efforts US diplomats say are geared to nudging China towards greater transparency about its capabilities.
Ian Storey, a Singapore-based regional security expert, said earlier that Hagel's visit would be "long on symbolism but short on actual operational capabilities."
"By showing him a vessel that was built in Ukraine in the 1980s and remains only a training platform that is still not fully operational, the Chinese will be keeping him away from their more sensitive capabilities, such as their missile programs or submarine fleets," said Storey, of Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies.
China is building submarines, surface ships and anti-ship ballistic missiles, and has tested emerging technology aimed at destroying missiles in mid-air.
The carrier visit came a day after Hagel said he would use his first trip to China as defense secretary to press Beijing to use its "great power" wisely and respect its neighbors, who have been put on edge by the country's growing assertiveness in Asia's disputed waters.