Sailors man the rails as USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) arrives in Zhanjiang, April 20. (U.S. Navy/MCSN Jordan KirkJohnson)

ZHANJIANG, People's Republic of China - U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) arrived in Zhanjiang April 20 for a port visit building relationships and reinforcing positive navy-to-navy exchanges with the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA(N)) South Sea Fleet.

As Blue Ridge moored pierside, members of PLA(N) greeted the ship with a welcome ceremony including music performed by the PLA(N) ceremonial band and a gift presented to Blue Ridge Commanding Officer Capt. Kyle P. Higgins by several PLA(N) military leaders.

"It's truly a privilege to take part in this ceremony with such a professional navy," said Higgins. "I was really impressed with the band and the Sailors in ranks."

"Chinese hospitality is legendary. Blue Ridge is looking forward to this port visit in Zhanjiang, and we're happy to contribute to building a strong relationship with the (PLA(N))."

The Port of Zhanjiang is one of the largest deep water ports in China and it serves as the headquarters for the PLA(N)'s South Sea Fleet. It is the southernmost port on the coast of mainland China and also serves as a shipping outlet for much of Southwest China.

While in Zhanjiang, Blue Ridge crew members, embarked U.S. 7th Fleet staff, the "Golden Falcons" of Helicopter Squadron 12 and Marines from Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team Pacific will welcome PLA(N) members and guests aboard for guided tours, while Blue Ridge personnel will also get the opportunity to tour Chinese vessels. These exchanges provide an opportunity for both navies to understand and learn from one another.

"China is our biggest neighbor in the 7th Fleet area of operations," said Blue Ridge Chaplain, Lt. Anthony Stallings. "There is a huge mutual benefit in building relationships of trust, mutual respect and cooperation."

Blue Ridge Sailors will also conduct a community service project with members of PLA(N) at the Zhanjiang Special Education School, interacting and playing games with the children during the visit. Additionally, Sailors from both navies will also team up creating an inter-navy team participating in basketball and soccer friendly competitions.

Blue Ridge made a similar port visit to Qingdao, China, in 2014, fostering relationships with the PLA(N) North Sea Fleet, however the most recent U.S. naval vessel to visit Zhanjiang was the guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67) in May 2013.

"This is our second visit to China in just over a year," said Command Master Chief Mark Tomlinson. "For most, this is a once in a life time opportunity."

Positive navy-to-navy relationships are based on common interests related to maritime security, counterterrorism, defense trade and security of the global commons. The U.S. 7th Fleet has increased military-to-military exchanges with China, in part to have greater transparency and in part to avoid any unnecessary and inadvertent escalation. As the relationship between the navies of both countries matures, the U.S. 7th Fleet seeks to expand exchanges and engagement with the PLA(N).

"To visit China, tour their ships while they tour ours, interact in both community service projects and sporting events is something that most Americans only dream about," said Tomlinson. "We have a great opportunity to forge friendships, share experiences and swap stories with another group of men and women that love the sea as much as we do."

Vice Adm. Robert Thomas, commander of U.S. 7th Fleet, speaks with news media following the ship's arrival. (U.S. Navy/MC2 Phillip Pavlovich)

Senior Chief Musician Guy Gregg, U.S. 7th Fleet Band assistant director, discusses an upcoming joint band performance with officials from China’s South Sea Fleet aboard USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19). (U.S. Navy/MC1 Brannon Deugan)

People’s Liberation Army Navy Vice Adm. Shen Jinlong, commander, South Sea Fleet, delivers remarks during a welcome reception for USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19). (U.S. Navy/MC1 Joshua Karsten)