By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - A Chinese navy hospital ship called the Peace Ark sailed on Friday into Havana Bay in Cuba, reflecting good relations between the communist allies and China's expanding global presence.
The 580-foot (178 meters) ship was met by Cuban naval officials in a low-profile arrival ceremony that international media were not invited to attend.
Chinese sailors lined the decks of the white vessel, which has red crosses painted on its side, as it entered the historic bay of the Cuban capital and was guided by tugboats into port. It flew Cuban and Chinese flags from its mast.
The trip is China's first operational naval mission to the Caribbean Sea, according to the blog of U.S. Naval War College professor Andrew Erickson.
According to Cuban news agency Prensa Latina and Chinese news reports, the Peace Ark will stay in Cuba until Wednesday, then sail to Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Costa Rica in a 100-day voyage known as "Harmonious Mission 2011."
Prensa Latina said there would be scientific exchanges during the ship's stay in Havana, but did not specify if medical treatment would be given to locals, as is often the case when hospital ships stop in foreign ports of call.
Chinese media said the ship has 300 hospital beds, eight operating rooms and 107 medical workers, including doctors and nurses.
Military experts and China watchers say the ship is one of the ways in which the Asian giant is increasing its use of "soft power" to burnish its image and achieve other policy goals such as increased trade and access to raw materials.
The Peace Ark was launched four years ago but is making only its second trip abroad after treating 15,500 people last year on a voyage to the Gulf of Aden and five African and Asian countries.
China's presence in Latin America has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years and it has become the creditor of last resort for cash-strapped Cuba.
Cuba owes several billion dollars to China, and earlier this year the two governments signed a series of bilateral accords that will increase Chinese participation on Cuban onshore and offshore oil exploration and in other areas of Cuban life.
The two governments are negotiating a deal for China to lead a $6 billion refurbishment of a refinery in Cienfuegos on Cuba's southern coast, with Venezuela providing financial backing for the project.
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Philip Barbara)