China military puts best foot forward, plays down tensions

LINTONG, China Mon Jul 29, 2013 8:12am EDT

1 of 2. A soldier from Air Defence Brigade, 47th Combined Corps, PLA poses for picture during a display organized for media by Chinese government in Lintong, Shaanxi province July 29, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Petar Kujundzic

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LINTONG, China (Reuters) - With handshakes and smiles, China's military put its best foot forward on Monday as it opened a secretive base to a rare visit by journalists, in an effort to allay Asia's growing fears about the country's strategic intentions.

China has advertised its military ambitions with displays of new hardware, from its first test flight of a stealth fighter jet in early 2011 to its launch of a fledgling aircraft carrier - both technologies that need further years of development.

The moves come as China jangles nerves in Asia and the United States with increasingly bold moves to assert territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

But on an annual trip to a Chinese military base -- this year, for the first time, one outside of Beijing -- officers were at pains to show they had nothing to hide and the world had nothing to fear.

"The Chinese people and the People's Liberation Army are peace loving," said Chen Xifeng, the gruff commander of the base in Lintong, which is close to the northern tomb where the famed Terracotta Warriors were discovered.

"China does have territorial disputes with some neighbors but the government and military are quite restrained in dealing with them," Chen, whose base houses an air defense brigade, told reporters.

"As soldiers, we are happy to see the development of our military, but we love peace even more."

The base is grouped under the Lanzhou Military Region, one of China's seven military regions, and is strategically important because the restive far western region of Xinjiang falls within its boundaries. Xinjiang itself borders Central Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Chen's base is also home to a detachment of advanced HQ-7B short-range anti-aircraft missiles, though they were not put in front of the cameras as they were off-base at a training exercise, the commander said.

Instead, ageing anti-aircraft cannons dating from the 1960s were brought out, along with a slightly more modern version, and soldiers chatted amiably about their equipment and why they joined the army as they posed for pictures.

"It was always my dream to join up. I've always loved my country and wanted to help defend it," said Hu Dan, 32, sweating under his tightly fitted helmet in the afternoon heat. Hu, from the eastern province of Jiangsu, became a soldier when he was just 18.

Spending on the People's Liberation Army will rise 10.7 percent to 740.6 billion yuan ($120 billion) this year, a number many governments and analysts say is not representative of the country's true defense outlays.

More sensitive questions were studiously swatted away on the carefully organized visit.

Geng Yansheng, the Chinese military's official spokesman who often appears in state media issuing missives on everything from relations with Japan to military spending, refused to talk about anything besides the day's activities.

"We can talk about all these things back in Beijing," Geng admonished reporters, when asked about tensions with Japan over a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea.

China wants to show its commitment to transparency by arranging such visits, he added.

"This visit shows how open we are ... But this openness is a gradual process," Geng said. "We will continue to do this and open up more bases for visits."

($1=6.1347 Chinese yuan)

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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