US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has toured the Liaoning – China’s first aircraft carrier – at the beginning of a three-day visit to the country.
Chuck Hagel, who arrived in the port of Qingdao from Japan, is thought to be the first senior Western official to board the vessel.
China bought it from Ukraine in 1998 and has spent 10 years refitting it.
It is seen as a potent symbol of China’s ambition to modernize its navy, amid a strategic shift in the region.
The fact that Chuck Hagel was allowed to step on board the carrier will be seen as a sign that the two countries may be willing to engage in more military co-operation.
Washington has repeatedly called for more transparency from Beijing on its military spending.
Chuck Hagel has toured the Liaoning – China’s first aircraft carrier – at the beginning of a three-day visit to the country (photo AFP)
US officials said that Chuck Hagel’s visit to the Liaoning at Yuchi naval base – which took place after a US request – lasted about two hours.
No further details were immediately available and journalists accompanying him on the China visit did not go with him.
The carrier was built in the 1980s for the Soviet navy but was never completed.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the rusting hull – then called the Varyag – sat in dockyards in Ukraine.
A Chinese company with links to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) then bought the Varyag, saying it wanted to turn the vessel into a floating casino in Macau.
In 2001, the ship was towed to China. The Chinese military confirmed in June 2011 that it was being refitted to serve as the nation’s first aircraft carrier.
Earlier this year, it completed sea trials in the South China Sea, where China has overlapping territorial claims with several South East Asian nations.
Beijing’s more assertive stance on this issue in recent years has led to a rise in tensions between China and its neighbors, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines.
China is also embroiled in a separate dispute over East China Sea islands that are controlled by Japan.
In Tokyo, Chuck Hagel addressed regional territorial disputes, saying Chinese authorities should have “respect for their neighbors”.
“You cannot… redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion and intimidation, whether it’s in small islands in the Pacific or large nations in Europe,” he said.
The Liaoning aircraft carrier has already attracted controversy. Late last year, Chuck Hagel criticized China as “irresponsible” after the near-collision of a US warship and a Chinese naval vessel in the South China Sea.
The US said its guided missile cruiser, USS Cowpens, was operating in international waters on December 5 when the Chinese vessel – which was accompanying the Liaoning – forced it to take evasive action.
The US Navy has christened USS Gerald R. Ford – the first of its new Ford-class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
The new super-carrier, which is only 70% complete, is named after late President Gerald Ford.
It is the first of 10 carriers designed to get more fighter planes into the sky more quickly, but with 1,000 fewer crew members.
The USS Gerald R. Ford is reportedly about 22% over budget, at a cost of almost $13 billion
It comes at a time of growing budget pressures for the US.
The carrier, which will weigh 100,000 tonnes, is reportedly due to be finished in 2016 when sea trials are likely to begin.
The ship is said to be the most technologically advanced aircraft carrier the US has built.
“She is truly a technological marvel,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm Jonathan Greenert said.
Gerald Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales, smashed the traditional bottle of champagne into the ship at a ceremony in Virginia on Saturday.
Gerald Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales, smashed the traditional bottle of champagne into the ship at a ceremony in Virginia
Former Vice-President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were among those leading tributes to the 38th US president.
“He was a man of courage and solid values… and I know the men and women who sail this ship will bring those same qualities in their service to our nation,” Donald Rumsfeld told the audience.
Delays with the ship’s completion mean the US Navy will be reduced to a 10-carrier fleet, following the USS Enterprise’s deactivation last year.
Fewer crew members mean the Ford-class carrier is expected to save $4 billion over the ship’s 50-year life span, according to the ship’s website.
It is designed to increase its ability to launch fighter jets and helicopters by 25%, generate more electrical power and allow the use of unmanned drones
Gerald Ford, who took office after Richard Nixon quit over the Watergate scandal in 1974, died in December 2006 at the age of 93.
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India has launched INS Vikrant, its first indigenous aircraft carrier, from a shipyard in southern Kerala state.
The 37,500 tonne INS Vikrant is expected to go for extensive trials in 2016 before being inducted into the navy by 2018, reports say.
With this, India joins a select group of countries capable of building such a vessel.
India has launched its first indigenous aircraft carrier from a shipyard
Other countries capable of building a similar ship are the US, the UK, Russia and France.
Monday’s launch of INS Vikrant marks the end of the first phase of its construction.
The ship will be then re-docked for outfitting and further construction.
The ship, which will have a length of 850 ft and a breadth of 196 ft, has been built at the shipyard in Cochin.
It was designed and manufactured locally, using high grade steel made by a state-owned steel company.
Vice-Admiral RK Dhowan of India’s navy has described the launch as the “crowning glory” of the navy’s programme to produce vessels on home soil.
China’s first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Soviet ship, has entered into service, the Defence Ministry says.
The 300 m (990ft) Liaoning – named after the province where it was refitted – is a refurbished Soviet ship purchased from Ukraine.
For now the carrier has no operational aircraft and will be used for training.
But China says the vessel, which has undergone extensive sea trials, will increase its capacity to defend state interests.
The delivery of the aircraft carrier comes at a time when Japan and other countries in the region have expressed concern at China’s growing naval strength.
Liaoning is a refurbished Soviet ship purchased from Ukraine
China and Japan are embroiled in a row over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Several South East Asian nations are also at odds with China over overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.
It also comes weeks ahead of a party congress expected to see the transition of power to a new generation of Chinese leaders.
The Liaoning was formally handed over to the navy at a ceremony attended by top Chinese leaders at Dalian Port, state-run Xinhua news agency said.
“Having the aircraft carrier enter the ranks will be of important significance in raising the overall fighting capacity of our nation’s navy to a modern level,” China’s Defence Ministry said in a statement.
The vessel will “increase [China’s] capacity to defend, develop its capacity to co-operate on the high seas in dealing with non-traditional security threats and will be effective in defending the interests of state sovereignty, security and development”, it added.
The official commissioning of the country’s first aircraft carrier signals China’s status as a rising power.
The country’s Communist leaders are spending billions modernizing their armed forces so they can project military power far beyond China’s borders, our correspondent adds.
The Liaoning, formerly known as the Varyag, was constructed in the 1980s for the Soviet navy but was never completed.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Varyag sat in Ukraine’s dockyards.
A Chinese company with links to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) bought the ship just as Soviet warships were being cut for scrap.
It said it wanted to turn the Varyag into a floating casino in Macau and in 2001 the ship was towed to China.
The Chinese military confirmed in June 2011 that it was being refitted to serve as the nation’s first aircraft carrier.
Analysts say it will take years to outfit the carrier with aircraft and make it fully operational. But Chinese officials say that the Liaoning advances the country’s military modernization.
“The development of aircraft carriers is an important part of China’s national defence modernization, in particular its naval forces, and this aircraft carrier is an essential stepping stone toward its own more advanced aircraft carriers in the future,” China’s Rear Admiral Yang Yi wrote in state-run China Daily newspaper.
The carrier will be mostly used “for scientific research and training missions” so China could build “a more advanced aircraft carrier platform in the future”, he added.