China's military cautiously tries out new openness

BEIJING (Reuters) - The Chinese soldiers shot down targets, overpowered black-clad terrorists and then lined up at attention in front of journalists.

People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers attend a drill during a reporting trip to the Third Guard Division of the PLA in Beijing July 28, 2009. August 1 marks the 82nd anniversary of the founding of the PLA. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

“Now you are invited to conduct individual interviews!” announced the commander of the Third Guard Division, wrapping up a rare media tour of a Beijing military base on Tuesday designed to show the Chinese military’s modernity and openness.

The People’s Liberation Army’s new mantra of transparency and public diplomacy is partly meant to reassure outsiders about China’s rising military strength.

“The degree of openness is an expression of national confidence,” said security expert Ma Zhengang, president of the China Institute of International Studies.

“For example, a rich household is very willing to welcome guests, but a poor family would be embarrassed.”

In a small step for openness but a giant leap for the Chinese military, the Ministry of Defense also plans to debut a website on August 1, the official China Daily reported this month.

“The point of the website is to explain the People’s Liberation Army better to the rest of the world,” ministry spokesman Hu Changming said.

“It’s a way to increase understanding between countries and raise trust between militaries.”

China’s military is the world’s largest, and reported budget spending has grown by double digits in recent years.

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But the secrecy of China’s political system makes its Asian neighbors and Washington wary about the rising power’s military intentions. Rivals worry that China is spending more than its reported $70 billion this year for instance, which is dwarfed by the Pentagon’s budget of more than $500 billion.

China largely relies on its own adaptations of Russian military technology since the U.S. and Europe will not sell it top-notch military hardware because of the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in June 1989.


For 60 years, retaking self-ruled Taiwan was the obsession of China’s military. An air and sea assault on Taiwan could only succeed if U.S. troops could not quickly reinforce from South Korea, Japan and Guam, Chinese military strategists say.

But warmer economic and political ties make an invasion of Taiwan less likely and allow China to focus on new priorities.

Indeed, China’s increased strength brings new vulnerabilities.

“We need to modernize and develop our IT capability. We’re still behind a lot of developed countries in our equipment and communications networks,” said Zhang Zhongzhou of the politics department of the Third Guard Division.

China, the third-largest economy in the world, is also heavily dependent on imports of oil, minerals and other commodities. That has raised the strategic importance of the navy.

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“We can’t rely on foreigners to guarantee the sea channels ... We need to protect our supply lines,” said expert Ma, who believes the navy will develop faster than other branches.

The navy’s mission to protect commercial shipping from Somali pirates last winter was a chance to practice skills needed to extend its reach, such as refueling and repairing while at sea.

In the absence of any recent wars, the PLA has devoted its manpower to tackling natural disasters. Its massive rescue effort after the Sichuan earthquake killed 80,000 people in 2008 restored an image that had been damaged after troops crushed the pro-democracy movement in 1989.

The highly disciplined People’s Armed Police, or paramilitary, now has the job of suppressing domestic unrest.

The army is trimming its ranks and recruiting more college graduates since modern battles are seldom won by sheer numbers.

Nevertheless, the army is still a way out for young men from the countryside, like 26-year-old Jia Dongsheng, who joined seven years ago after failing to get into college.

“We’ve learned a lot of skills, including computers. I think I can get a job now without any problem,” said Jia.

Editing by Ben Blanchard and Dean Yates