IN A MOVE showing its sincerity in improving military ties with the United States, China has given visiting US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel an unprecedented tour on board its sole aircraft carrier.
Kicking off a three-day visit in China, his first since assuming his role in February last year, Mr Hagel visited the Liaoning at a naval port in Qingdao after arriving in the coastal city yesterday.
US officials said Mr Hagel, who is believed to be the first senior Western official allowed on board the vessel, had requested the tour, which lasted two hours, according to media reports yesterday.
"China agreed (to the tour) as it wants to show that it values his visit and the commitment by both sides to improve military interaction and ties," Peking University international relations analyst Jia Qingguo told The Straits Times.
Observers say Sino-US military ties have seen breakthroughs in the past year, with frequent high-level visits and new initiatives, since the California summit in June last year between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Barack Obama that saw the two leaders committing to a new type of major-power relationship.
Their meeting last month on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands also saw them agreeing on the need to set up an early notification mechanism and a maritime code of conduct between their militaries.
Singapore-based analyst Chen Gang said China had agreed to the aircraft carrier tour also to allay US concerns over its burgeoning defence spending, which has been registering double-digit growth in recent years.
"Some say the tour was China trying to flex its muscle to the US. But that's the wrong interpretation, as China is usually sensitive and reluctant about showing the US its military bases or equipment," he said.
"Also, the gap in the technological capabilities of the Chinese aircraft carrier and American ones is enormous. China is showing its vessel to assure the US that there's no need to worry."
The 60,000-tonne Liaoning is a Soviet-era vessel bought from Ukraine in 1998 and re-fitted in a Chinese shipyard.
Though it is viewed as a symbol of Beijing's growing naval power and ambition for greater global influence, the carrier has yet to become fully operational.
Also, Chinese military experts have often downplayed its capabilities and say that it could be decades before China's vessel can match the US carriers.
Mr Hagel, who will visit Mongolia next, arrived after a two-day visit in Japan where he used unusually strong language against China and said he would tell Chinese officials not to abuse their "great power" and of the need to respect China's neighbours.
Beijing is locked in maritime spats with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku isles in the East China Sea and with four Asean states and Taiwan in the South China Sea.
Among several Chinese state media that responded to Mr Hagel's remarks, the Xinhua news agency in a commentary accused him of "laying misplaced blame" on Beijing for his criticism that China's Air Defence Identification Zone, launched last November in the East China Sea, is provocative.
Xinhua said it was China's legal right to set up such a zone to protect regional stability.
Writing in the Global Times tabloid, senior colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo of the People's Liberation Army's Academy of Military Science said it is natural for China and the US to have "conflicting understandings" on some issues, given differences in their stages of development and external security environments, among others.
"The more they are different, the more communication is required. Communication leads to knowledge, and knowledge leads to understanding, and understanding leads to trust," he wrote.