QINGDAO: China showed off its new aircraft carrier to US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday, allowing him a first-hand look at a symbol of its growing military prowess.
And perhaps not by coincidence, Beijing warned the United States also on Monday against interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs after US Vice President Joe Biden met with two of the city’s out–spoken pro-democracy campaigners last week.
Hagel arrived in the port city of Qingdao, kicking off a three-day tour of China with a visit to the carrier at Yuchi naval base. He was the first foreigner allowed aboard the vessel by the often secretive People’s Liberation Army (PLA), officials said.
His visit to China comes against the backdrop of friction between Washington and Beijing over cyber-spying, with each side trading accusations of digital espionage.
Last month the New York Times and Germany’s Der Spiegel reported that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had accessed the email archive of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, communications between top company officials and the source code of some of its products.
Upon arrival in Qingdao from Japan, Hagel was greeted by Chinese military officers and US ambassador Max Baucus. Reporters were not allowed to accompany Hagel on to the naval base.
The carrier visit was “significant” as Washington has tried to forge a dialogue with China’s top brass to ease tensions and prodded Beijing to be more open about its military, said a senior US defense official in advance of Hagel’s inspection.
“We requested this and they agreed,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The carrier, the Liaoning, “symbolizes for the PLA their ambition to project naval power,” the official said.
The Liaoning was a Soviet-made warship based in Ukraine that the Chinese bought and refitted, completing the work in September 2012 in a milestone for the country’s expanding military.
China also has started constructing the second of four planned aircraft carriers, Chinese media reports in January quoted a Communist Party official in the province where it is being built as saying.
The official added that it is expected to take six years to construct.
Unlike American aircraft carriers, the Liaoning is not nuclear-powered and has a shorter range. It has no catapult system for launching aircraft but merely an inclined ramp.
Warning on HK
In the first official response from Beijing, Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua quoted an official as saying that the US should “proceed discreetly” in dealing with the situation in Hong Kong to prevent damaging China-US relations.
In an unusually high sign of support, Biden attended talks at the White House on Friday with Martin Lee, a founder of Hong Kong’s opposition Democratic Party, and Anson Chan, former number two in the city’s government.
Biden “underscored our long-standing support for democracy in Hong Kong,” the White House said in a statement.
Hong Kong—a former British colony which is now a special administrative region of China—is at a critical time of political reform and Beijing opposes interference by any country in China’s internal affairs, a foreign ministry spokes–man in Hong Kong said, according to Xinhua’s dispatch.
Lee and Chan used their visit to Washington last week to speak out against what they described as growing interference by Beijing in Hong Kong.
Britain returned the financial hub to China in 1997 under a deal that granted it semi-autonomous status and enshrined civil liberties not guaranteed in China.
China has promised direct elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017, but many pro-democrats fear that Beijing’s Communist rulers will control the choice of candidates to secure the election of a sympathetic official.