China's not-so-secret army

CHINA'S 2.3-million strong People's Liberation Army (PLA) is celebrating its 80th anniversary with new uniforms, lavish exhibitions and a degree of transparency unusual for a force long swathed in secrecy.

The uniforms replace the old baggy style that had changed little in the 20-odd years since China's economy began to take off, while a Beijing exhibition is showcasing many of the fruits of years of double-digit increases in defence spending, transforming a military long regarded as huge but vastly outdated.

Yet it is the moves toward greater transparency that are the most striking, apparently motivated both by the demands of military modernisation and the need to calm nervous neighbours.

Those began with the publication of biannual reports on the military in 1998 that have steadily grown more detailed, even while repeating threats to attack Taiwan, the self-governing island that China says is its territory.

In recent years, increasing numbers of foreign observers have been permitted at PLA exercises. Drills and port visits have been held with the United States, French, Indian and other navies, and full-scale exercises held with Russia and other Central Asian states.

For the first time this year, a Chinese general attended a multilateral defence forum, surprising those present by announcing the PLA's intention to set up an emergency hotline with the Pentagon. China's defence ministry is also reportedly planning to appoint a media spokesman - a huge step for a body that, until recently, did not even have a published phone number.

"The Chinese military is getting more and more in line with international practice, more confident and transparent," Major-General Luo Yuan was quoted as saying in the official China Daily in a story about the PLA exhibition in Beijing.

In another sign of that transparency, the media have been allowed a rare visit to the base of PLA Unit 196, just over Beijing's border in the neighbouring city of Tianjin.

After watching a drill involving martial arts, marksmanship and artillery fire, Wu Yuzhang, a senior colonel at the defence ministry's foreign affairs department, said: "What outsiders hype up the most is the military budget. We've already given a very clear explanation about that in our defence white paper."

And Zhang Qingjiang, Unit 196's senior colonel, said: "I don't know what anyone has to worry about. I think we're very transparent. I can tell you all the numbers for this base, including how much I earn."

Much has yet to change, though. PLA leaders have taken the opportunity of the 1 August anniversary to recommit to their role as the ruling Communist Party's house army, rejecting any notion of shifting loyalty to the government.

Others say the PLA needs to be clearer both on spending and the intentions of its military build-up.

An Australian government report said: "The pace and scope of its military modernisation, particularly the development of new and disruptive capabilities, such as the anti-satellite missile, could create misunderstandings and instability in the region."

David Shambaugh, an expert on the Chinese military at George Washington University in Washington, said the PLA "is making significant efforts to improve their foreign military exchanges, but still has a long way to go in the area of transparency.

"They still operate from a zero-sum mindset that the more information that is known about the PLA, the more insecure China is," he said.


DEFENCE spending for the PLA - the world's largest army - continues to balloon, rising 17.8 per cent this year to 351 billion yuan (22 billion).

That is similar to Japan, Russia and Britain but less than one-tenth of what the US military costs.

However, the Pentagon says China's real defence spending may be much more, as the official budget does not include major weapons purchases and other items.

While China still lacks many big systems such as aircraft carriers, such budget increases have allowed the PLA to upgrade its equipment, buying planes, ships and submarines from Russia. China this year also claimed breakthroughs in its own defence industry. In January, it blew up one of its defunct satellites with a missile-launched projectile and unveiled its new Jian-10 fighter jet.

The new hardware has been accompanied by strategic thinking, with military journals talking about protecting the country's seaborne trade and energy supply routes, as well as blunting the US military's superiority in the Pacific.

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