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Liaoning aircraft carrier

Chuck Hagel's visit to Liaoning carrier spurs media talk on PLA transparency

Editorial says the military should open its doors to ordinary Chinese in the same way it did with US defence secretary

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 3:57am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 April, 2014, 3:57am

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel's invitation to board the Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier, sparked discussions on whether China should open its military facilities to the general public.

Hagel, who wrapped up his mainland tour on Thursday, became the first foreign official invited aboard the Liaoning. After landing in the port city of Qingdao on Monday, Hagel spent two hours on the ship - a symbol of Beijing's growing naval ambitions.

US officials travelling with Hagel noted the Liaoning is not yet fully operational. But the rare tour showed that the PLA is moving towards transparency.

An editorial in the Global Times, published under the auspices of the official People's Daily, argued that ordinary Chinese citizens should benefit from the PLA's openness.

Only a few members of the public have been taken on board the Liaoning since it entered service in September 2012.

"We would like to call for the Liaoning to take the lead in setting an open day for the public, allowing ordinary people to get aboard, appreciate its grandeur and have face-to-face interactions with the crew members," the editorial said.

The ship had already been scrutinised by other countries using satellite imagery, the editorial said, so national security was not a valid reason to restrict access.

"Hagel's visit has also shown that a brief tour on board will not threaten the ship," it said. "It's time for China to revamp its outdated mindset on how to safeguard national security."

Allowing public access to the Liaoning and other military facilities would show China was not on a war footing, and not overly concerned with military secrecy, it said.

Greater public access would "boost patriotism and social integrity in times of peace".

"An open day has been proven as the easiest and most effective way to enhance ties between the army and the masses," it said.

But the editorial was ridiculed by internet users who said an aircraft carrier was not a public showpiece.

"The aircraft carrier is not a tourist spot. What can we see?" asked one user on Sina Weibo.

The tour, in which Hagel inspected the vessel's medical facilities, living quarters, flight deck, bridge and flight-control station, was an attempt by China to show Beijing's eagerness to improve military ties with the US.

"We hope that Hagel can see the sincerity of China after coming on board the aircraft carrier, and push forward the positive development of Sino-US military ties" despite mutual tensions, said a commentary in The Beijing News .

The uses of Liaoning, other than for military purposes, could be wide-ranging and carry a "diplomatic signal", the commentary said.

It cited the visit to a US aircraft carrier by former vice premier Geng Biao 34 years ago. "The political message is very evident this time when China allows the US defence chief to visit its only aircraft carrier," the commentary said.

But state media also took notice of Hagel's tough rhetoric made in Japan before arriving in China. In Tokyo, Hagel said China should respect its neighbours, which are involved in bitter territorial disputes with Beijing.

"He is ignoring the fact that it is the US meddling in the territorial issues which has resulted in the worsening situation in the South China Sea," said an editorial in the China Daily.

"The US has simply been emboldening countries in their bids to provoke China and is making things increasingly complicated and difficult to be settled through talks and negotiations."

The Beijing Times said the aircraft-carrier tour still went ahead even after Hagel's tough remarks because China wanted to make a positive gesture to the US, creating an impression that the future development of Sino-US military ties was "up to Washington".