QINGDAO, CHINA – U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited China’s sole aircraft carrier Monday in an unprecedented opening by normally secretive Beijing to a potent symbol of its military buildup.
A U.S. official said the visit to the carrier, the Liaoning, at a port in the northern city of Qingdao, lasted about two hours. No other details were immediately available.
The official believed Hagel was the first official visitor from outside China to be allowed on board the Liaoning, although that could not be immediately confirmed.
Chinese security experts said Beijing could be trying to quell U.S. criticism that it was not transparent about its military modernization.
Hagel’s carrier visit, at the start of his three-day trip to China, was quietly approved by Beijing at Washington’s request, the U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The 60,000-ton Liaoning, a Soviet-era vessel bought from Ukraine in 1998 and refitted 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.
“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.
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.