US defence chief Chuck Hagel was given a rare tour of China's first aircraft carrier as he kicked off a three-day visit yesterday.
He became the first foreign official to go on board the Liaoning after arriving in the port city of Qingdao, getting a glimpse of Beijing's growing military strength and ambition.
Observers said the visit was a response to increasing concern in Washington about the lack of transparency surrounding China's military build-up. Hagel was invited to China by Defence Minister Chang Wanquan, but the inspection was arranged at Washington's request, said a senior US official.
Watch: Hagel arrives in China for a three-day trip
Hagel and a small number of his staff spent about two hours on the ship at Yuchi Naval Base, a US official said. Hagel received a briefing about the carrier and then toured its medical facilities, living quarters, flight deck, bridge, and flight control station. He also had refreshments with junior officers in the dining area.
"The secretary was very pleased with his visit today aboard the carrier Liaoning," said Pentagon press secretary Admiral John Kirby. "He hopes today's visit is a harbinger for other opportunities to improve our military-to-military dialogue and transparency."
Hagel said in Tokyo on Sunday that Beijing should respect neighbours anxious over its stance on territorial disputes.
Beijing has not hit back at Hagel's comments and the PLA Daily said yesterday that his visit would help remove obstacles to improving the relationship between the two nations' militaries.
"It is helpful in suppressing attempts by a few nations to utilise and 'create' conflicts between China and the US for their selfish gains and to bring a positive impact in regional peace and stability," the article said.
Observers said the carrier visit was a crucial step after the US and China had agreed to establish regular dialogue between their armies and to take part in more multinational military drills.
Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based naval expert, said: "By allowing Hagel to visit the carrier, which is sensitive in nature, China is showing sincerity."
Wang Fan, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, said the move may help reduce criticism of China's military ambitions. "By allowing the carrier visit, China is saying that it has nothing to hide about its military modernisation," he said.
The relationship is often troubled by mutual distrust. Beijing fears its leverage in territorial disputes in both the East and South China seas will be lost as Washington strengthens its military presence in the region. Hagel reaffirmed this in Tokyo by promising to send two more missile defence ships to Japan.
Zhu Feng, director of the International Security Programme at Peking University, said: "The competition triggered by China's demand to maintain territorial sovereignty and the US desire to keep its dominant position in the region is not going to be eased and this has triggered the possibility of military clashes. They need to find ways to contain such a possibility."
Yue Gang, a retired colonel, said the carrier inspection showed China was confident about its military capability.
"Some say the aircraft carrier is just a 'paper tiger' because it is not fully operational. But China wouldn't show it to the US defence chief if it was not sophisticated enough," he said.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse