BEIJING – U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel got a rare tour Monday of China's first aircraft carrier, becoming the first foreign visitor to go aboard the ship, according to Chinese leaders.
But in a speech planned for Tuesday, Hagel will point to cyber as an example of an area where the U.S. would like the Chinese to be more transparent, said a senior U.S. official who was not authorized to talk publicly about the speech in advance of its delivery and therefore spoke only on grounds of anonymity.
Hagel arrived in Beijing Monday after a stop in Japan, where he told reporters that China must be more open about its military buildup and better respect its neighbors — a pointed reference to Beijing's ongoing territorial dispute with Japan and others over remote islands in the East China Sea.
The official acknowledged that the U.S. officials recently met with Chinese leaders and shared some broad information about America's fundamental cybersecurity policies and how the U.S. approaches the challenges in cyberspace. The Chinese, however, have so far refused to reciprocate, and have rebuffed U.S. efforts to gain more clarity on China's cyber operations.
U.S. intelligence and defense officials have long complained about the persistent, aggressive cyberattacks against U.S. government agencies and private corporations that emanate from China.
And Hagel, during unusually forceful remarks on his visit to Japan, drew a direct line between Russia's takeover of Ukraine's Crimea region and the ongoing territorial disputes among China, Japan and others over remote islands in the East China Sea.
Calling China a great power, he added that "with this power comes new and wider responsibilities as to how you use that power, how you employ that military power."
U.S. officials on Monday said the tour of China's aircraft carrier was a good first step toward building better relations with the Chinese.
"The secretary was very pleased with his visit today aboard the carrier Liaoning," said Pentagon press secretary Adm. John Kirby. "He understands how significant it was for the PLA to grant his request for a tour, and he was impressed by the professionalism of the officers and crew. He hopes today's visit is a harbinger for other opportunities to improve our military-to-military dialogue and transparency."
A senior official said that Hagel and a small number of his staff spent about two hours on the ship at Yuchi Naval Base. 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.
China spent a decade refurbishing the derelict Soviet-era carrier bought from Ukraine before commissioning it as the Liaoning in 2012. It moved to Qingdao in February 2013 and is part of a major expansion of the Chinese navy that includes sophisticated new surface ships and submarines.
The U.S. defense official said the ship is not as fast as a U.S. aircraft carrier and doesn't carry as many aircraft. The official also said the Chinese military leaders agreed that they still have much to learn about naval aviation, and how to operate fighter jets and other aircraft off a navy ship.
Hagel earlier this year had asked to see the ship, and a few weeks ago the Chinese agreed.
Early this year the Liaoning completed sea trials in the South China Sea. The official Xinhua News Agency said the carrier tested its combat system, conducted a formation practice and "attained the anticipated objectives."
On Dec. 5, early in the Liaoning's trial run, one of the Chinese ships accompanying it was involved in a near collision with a U.S. Navy cruiser, the USS Cowpens, when it was operating in international waters in the South China Sea. U.S. Navy officials said the Cowpens maneuvered to avoid the collision, but it marked the two nations' most serious sea confrontation in years.
At the time, a Chinese media report said the U.S. ship got too close to the Liaoning.
Hagel is on a 10-day trip to the Asia Pacific region and is scheduled to meet with senior Chinese leaders before traveling to Mongolia, then returning home.