China takes step at openness, allows foreigners at defense briefing

BEIJING Thu Jul 31, 2014 6:40am EDT

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BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Defence Ministry allowed foreign media for the first time on Thursday to attend its monthly news conference in another step towards increasing transparency, though the briefing yielded little concrete news.

The ministry started the briefings in 2011, first restricting attendance to Chinese reporters, unlike other government departments, like the Foreign Ministry, where access is generally extended to the foreign press.

Growing military spending - slated at 808.2 billion yuan ($131 billion) this year - along with increasing assertiveness over territorial rows - has worried the region over China's intentions, especially over a perceived lack of openness by the armed forces.

"We hope that attending the regular Defence Ministry press conference will help you in your reporting in China and hope that you can help the world understand more objectively and more truthfully China and China's military," ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said as the outset of the briefing.

The ministry has invited eight foreign reporters from different foreign news organizations to attend, including Reuters, for an initial six-month period. Officials will then assess the briefings and decide whether other foreign reporters may be allowed in.

CORRUPTION

Geng took 18 questions in just under 90 minutes, including on sensitive topics like the ruling Communist Party's campaign against pervasive corruption, though he gave no details on probes into two senior officers caught up in the crackdown.

China said last month it would court-martial one of its most senior former military officers, Xu Caihou, on charges of corruption.[ID:nL4N0PB2JK]

Xu retired as vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission last year and from the ruling Communist Party's decision-making Politburo in 2012.

He has been under virtual house arrest for months while helping in the probe into Gu Junshan, sources have told Reuters.

Gu has been investigated for corruption since being sacked as deputy director of the logistics department of the People's Liberation Army in 2012, sources previously told Reuters. He was charged with corruption earlier this year. [ID:nL4N0MS2O5]

Geng said the probe into Gu was proceeding and repeated that the military backed President Xi Jinping's battle against graft and would tolerate no corrupt elements in its ranks.

Several questions dealt with military drills which have caused widespread disruption to flights in eastern China in the past few days, prompting public frustration.

Geng said the military had worked with the civil aviation regulator to minimize disruption. The government, he said, was looking at how to "optimize" use of China's airspace, though he gave no details.

Geng deflected any notion that the drills sought to send a message to Japan or other countries embroiled in territorial disputes with China, saying they were not aimed at any country.

"These exercises are a routine arrangement in the annual training plan and the outside world should not speculate or read too much into it," he added.

($1 = 6.1737 Chinese yuan)

(Editing by Ron Popeski)

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