U.S. Defense Secretary tours China’s new aircraft carrier

BEIJING (AP)

The United States’ campaign to encourage China to be more open about its military growth and intentions got a symbolic boost Monday, but efforts to get the Asian giant to be more transparent about other defense operations, including cybersecurity, have so far lagged behind.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel got a rare tour of China’s first aircraft carrier, becoming the first foreign visitor to go aboard the ship, according to Chinese leaders.

But in a speech planned for Tuesday, Hagel will point to cybersecurity as an example of an area where the U.S. would like the Chinese to be more transparent, said a senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to talk publicly about the speech so spoke on condition of anonymity.

Hagel arrived in Beijing after a stop in Japan, where he told reporters that China must be more open about its military buildup and better respect its neighbors – a pointed allusion to Beijing’s ongoing territorial dispute with Japan and others over remote islands in the East China Sea.

The official acknowledged that the U.S. officials recently met with Chinese leaders and shared some broad information about America’s fundamental cybersecurity policies and how the U.S. approaches the challenges in cyberspace. The Chinese, however, have so far refused to reciprocate, and have rebuffed U.S. efforts to gain more clarity on China’s cyber operations.

U.S. intelligence and defense officials have long complained that about the persistent, aggressive cyberattacks against U.S. government agencies and private corporations that emanate from China.

And Hagel, during unusually forceful remarks during his stop in Japan, drew a direct line between Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region and the ongoing territorial disputes between China, Japan and others over remote islands in the East China Sea.

Calling China a great power, he added that “with this power comes new and wider responsibilities as to how you use that power, how you employ that military power.”

But officials on Monday said the tour of China’s aircraft carrier was a good first step toward building better relations with the Chinese.

“The Secretary was very pleased with his visit today aboard the carrier Liaoning,” said Pentagon press secretary Adm. John Kirby. “He understands how significant it was for the PLA to grant his request for a tour, and he was impressed by the professionalism of the officers and crew. He hopes today’s visit is a harbinger for other opportunities to improve our military-to-military dialogue and transparency.”

A senior official said Hagel and a small number of his staff spent about two hours on the ship at Yuchi Naval Base. Hagel received a briefing about the carrier, then toured its medical facilities, living quarters, flight deck, bridge, and flight control station. He also had refreshments with junior officers in the dining area.

China spent a decade refurbishing the derelict Soviet-era carrier bought from Ukraine before commissioning it as the Liaoning in 2012. It moved to Qingdao in February 2013 and is part of a major expansion of the Chinese navy that includes sophisticated new surface ships and submarines.

The U.S. defense official said the ship is not as fast as a U.S. aircraft carrier and doesn’t carry as many aircraft. But the official said the Chinese military leaders agree that they still have much to learn about naval aviation, and how to operate fighter jets and other aircraft off a navy ship.

Hagel earlier this year had asked to see the ship, and a few weeks ago the Chinese agreed.

Early this year the Liaoning completed sea trials in the South China Sea. The official Xinhua News Agency said the carrier tested its combat system, conducted a formation practice and “attained the anticipated objectives.”

On Dec. 5, early in the Liaoning’s trial run, one of the Chinese ships accompanying it was involved in a near collision with a U.S. Navy cruiser, the USS Cowpens, when it was operating in international waters in the South China Sea. U.S. Navy officials said the Cowpens maneuvered to avoid the collision, but it marked the two nations’ most serious sea confrontation in years.

At the time, a Chinese media report said the U.S. ship got too close to the Liaoning.

Hagel is on a 10-day trip to the Asia Pacific region and was leaving Japan Monday to travel to China. He is scheduled to meet with senior Chinese leaders before traveling to Mongolia, then returning home.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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