Hagel Gets Aircraft Carrier Tour on First Visit to China

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel toured China’s first aircraft carrier a day after warning the Communist Party-led nation not to use coercion to settle territorial disputes with its neighbors.

Hagel was the first foreign visitor to get such access to China’s aircraft carrier, according to a senior U.S. defense official. The ship, Liaoning, is based at Qingdao naval base.

A day before leaving for China, Hagel met in Tokyo with his Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera to assure him that the U.S. would stand by Japan if China forcefully grabbed Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea. He compared the island dispute with Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“You cannot go around the world and 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,” Hagel said while in Japan.

Hagel called China a “great power” and said that with such power “comes new and wider responsibilities as to how you use that power.”

The Pentagon chief requested the tour, which lasted two hours and was closed to the media, said Army Colonel Steve Warren, at an informal briefing today at the Pentagon.

“We are pleased that the Chinese supported that request,” Warren said. “This was an important step in increasing their transparency.”

Aircraft Carrier

Hagel visited Qingdao, southeast of Beijing and home to China’s North Sea fleet on the East China Sea, before arriving in Beijing for two days of meetings with his counterpart and other Chinese officials.

China built its Liaoning aircraft carrier from an unfinished Soviet-era hull and commissioned the ship in September 2012. The ship has undergone sea trials and the People’s Liberation Army has landed its J-15 aircraft on the carrier deck.

China is building up its navy as President Xi Jinping seeks to position his country as a maritime power. China’s second aircraft carrier will be completed in 2018, the South China Morning Post reported Jan. 19, citing a regional Communist Party chief. Liaoning is some way from combat-readiness, General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific, said Feb 9.

National Security

In November as Liaoning was deployed to the South China Sea area, China unilaterally declared an air defense zone over parts of the airspace used by South Korea and Japan. In December, the U.S. Navy’s guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens got too close to Liaoning in the South China Sea, according to China’s Global Times newspaper.

“America is clearly right up against the front door of China,” the Global Times said in its editorial. “The American ship coming close to the Liaoning for reconnaissance is already not ‘innocent passage’ -- it is already a threat to China’s national security.”