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US Navy Officers Tour Chinese Aircraft Carrier

FILE - China's first aircraft carrier, renovated from an old aircraft carrier bought from Ukraine, is shown docked in Dalian, Liaoning province in 2012. A senior U.S. Navy delegation toured the ship this week.

China this week hosted a visit to its sole aircraft carrier by senior U.S. Navy officers amid tensions over reported plans by Washington to challenge Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The delegation of 27 commanders and captains boarded the Liaoning on Monday and discussed “exercise management, personnel training, medical protection and strategies in carrier development,'' the Chinese navy said on its official microblog.

On Tuesday morning, the delegation visited the navy’s submarine academy, where further dialogues were held, the navy said.

The visits appear to reflect the growing momentum of military exchanges between the sides, despite occasional flare-ups in tensions and Washington's complaints over what it calls the Chinese military's lack of transparency.

The visits follow reports that the U.S. Navy plans to sail a warship inside the 21-kilometer territorial limit of one of China's newly constructed islands formed by piling sand atop existing reefs and atolls. That would demonstrate Washington's refusal to recognize China's claims in the South China Sea, especially artificial islands that the U.S. insists cannot be classified as sovereign territory.

Low-key visits

Both China and the United States. appeared to want to keep this week's visits low-key, with China's official Global Times newspaper not reporting on them until Wednesday. The U.S. Navy's official website didn’t mention them.

This map illustrates territorial claims in the South China Sea.
This map illustrates territorial claims in the South China Sea.

China claims sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea and its maritime features, while five other governments also claim it in part or in whole. China's growing assertiveness and a renewed U.S. focus on Asian military affairs are seen as fueling a rise in tensions in the region, which is home to key shipping lanes, rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of mineral resources.

Reciprocal visit

The long-planned visits reciprocated a weeklong visit by 29 Chinese naval officers to the United States in February. That marked the first time China had sent a delegation of such size, reported the Global Times, published by the ruling Communist Party's flagship People's Daily newspaper.

The Global Times quoted the Chinese delegation’s leader, Commander Zhang Junshe, as saying exchanges of front-line officers was vital to “reducing miscalculations and misjudgments and boosting mutual understanding and trust.''

The Liaoning was commissioned three years ago after China spent more than a decade refurbishing an incomplete hull purchased from Ukraine, installing all new propulsion systems, weaponry and other key equipment. Officially categorized as a test platform, it has yet to receive its full air complement.

Then-U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was the first foreign visitor to the Liaoning, touring the ship last year with a small delegation at its home port in the northern city of Qingdao.

China is believed to have begun work recently on its first entirely home-built carrier. It’s steadily adding cutting edge frigates, destroyers and nuclear submarines to its fleet.