- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2012

QINGDAO, China — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta toured two Chinese warships Thursday afternoon, as part of his visit here to improve U.S.-Chinese military-to-military relations.

Mr. Panetta toured the Chinese frigate Yantai, which is over 405 feet long and is manned by 172 crew members. The ship, launched in 2010 and commissioned in 2011, is diesel powered, and has electronic warfare systems, missile systems and a helicopter landing system.

It recently supported a counter-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden.

The defense secretary asked several questions of the ship’s captain, a senior defense official said.

Mr. Panetta also toured the “Great Wall 197” submarine, which holds a crew of 55. It is a conventional powered vessel.

Launched in 2002 and commissioned in 2003, it is more tha 228 feet long, and has torpedo, mine layer and reconnaissance capabilities.

It was the first time a U.S. defense secretary had toured the naval facility in Qingdao, China, which was home to the Northern Sea Fleet, founded in August 1960.

Fleet commander Vice Adm. Tian Zhong and Mr. Panetta discussed the importance of the navy to both of their countries, as well as the importance of engagement and exercises, the senior defense official said.

Earlier this week in Beijing, Mr. Panetta announced that the U.S. Navy has invited China to send a ship to participate in 2014’s “Rim of the Pacific,” the largest biennial, multilateral naval exercise in the Pacific.