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.
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.