By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Chinese navy is using its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, for training and testing and will decide on an operational carrier for the fleet after a few years of evaluation, Admiral Wu Shengli said on Thursday.
The navy chief of the People's Liberation Army, on a military-to-military visit with his U.S. counterpart, told reporters at the Washington Navy Yard that Chinese sailors would carry out "very heavy" training over the next two or three years as they assess the carrier.
"After the training and experimentation we will have a final evaluation on the development of the aircraft carrier for the PLA navy," said Shengli, whose delegation included the commander of the Liaoning and the first pilot to land on its flight deck.
The Chinese carrier was built on the shell of a Soviet-era vessel that China purchased from Ukraine. China revamped the ship, which was formally commissioned in September 2012. Flight operations began two months later.
The launch of the first Chinese carrier is been seen as a symbol of Beijing's ambition for greater global influence and another sign of its rapid military buildup. U.S. officials have downplayed the importance, noting that it takes years to learn to effectively integrate carriers into fleet operations.
Senior Captain Zhang Zheng, the commander of the Liaoning, said the carrier was smaller than U.S. aircraft carriers and had a "ski jump"-style ramp at the end of its longest runway.
"We have around 36 airplanes operating on board our ship," he told reporters. "And we are still practicing and doing tests and experiments for the equipment and systems."
Wu, Zhang and Captain Dai Ming Meng, the pilot who first landed on the carrier, visited several American ships in California earlier this week, including the carrier USS Carl Vinson, where they met with their counterparts.
"We talked in great detail in San Diego with our aviation people and Admiral Wu's aviation people," said Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, who hosted Wu. "It was great and inspiring to see two professionals talk about a common challenge - aviation from an aircraft carrier."
Wu received a ceremonial 19-gun salute at the Washington Navy Yard, the U.S. Navy's oldest shore establishment, during his formal welcoming ceremony on Thursday. He and his delegation visited the Pentagon later for further discussions.
The Wu visit was part of stepped-up efforts to improve military-to-military ties between the United States and China following a break in 2009 due to U.S. military sales to Taiwan. More than 40 visits, exchanges and engagements are planned for 2013, versus 20 last year.
China is due to participate for the first time next summer in the U.S.-sponsored Rim of the Pacific exercises, the world's largest maritime warfare exercise.
With the United States shifting its focus on the Asia-Pacific after a dozen years of war in Afghanistan, the two navies are increasingly bumping up against each other in hot spots in the region. They hope to build up a mutual understanding that can help avert confrontations in the future.
Greenert said recently that Wu and other Chinese military leaders want to "move on to a consistency of dialogue" and "get away from miscalculation."
"He has a challenge of a growing navy and an assignment ... to operate in the South China Sea," Greenert told the American Enterprise Institute think tank last week. "They know we're going to be there too ... so he wants to get away from miscalculation and preclude ... a scenario that they just wish they hadn't gotten themselves into."
(Reporting by David Alexander)