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QINGDAO, China — 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.
The carrier visit came at the start of Hagel's three-day trip to China, 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.
"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.
The 60,000-ton 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.
A 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."
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.