PEOPLE’S LIBERATION ARMY UNIT 196, China (Reuters) – China let in a crack of light on its military modernisation on Monday, opening a camp to foreign reporters to put out the message: we have nothing to hide and you have nothing to fear.
The People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest armed force, guards its secrets jealously. Foreigners are almost never allowed on to their bases, let alone foreign journalists.
But China is keen to dispel jitters in Washington that its growing arms budget is far from transparent and that Beijing’s rising military spending may destabilize East Asia.
“What outsiders hype up the most is the military budget,” said Wu Yuzhang, a senior colonel and official at the Defense Ministry’s Foreign Affairs Department, after watching a drill involving martial arts, marksmanship and artillery fire.
“We’ve already given a very clear explanation about that in our defense white paper,” he told reporters at Unit 196’s base just over Beijing’s border in the neighboring city of Tianjin.
In March, China said it would boost defense spending by 17.8 percent to about $45 billion this year, but a Pentagon report in May said Beijing’s total military-related spending could more than double that.
China and the United States have long sparred over the nature of China’s military development, with Washington saying it is trying to project its growing power and Beijing maintaining that its armed forces are geared towards self-defense only.
“I don’t know what anyone has to worry about,” said Unit 196’s senior colonel, Zhang Qingjiang. “I think we’re very transparent. I can tell you all the numbers for this base, including how much I earn.”
Still, while other Chinese ministries have made real efforts in recent years to set up a system of spokesmen and hold regular news conferences, the Ministry of Defense is virtually uncontactable and its officials rarely talk to the media.
But ahead of next year’s Beijing Olympics and because this year is the 80th anniversary of the army’s founding, the ministry had decided to open up a little, Wu said.
“The main aim is so everyone can have a clearer, more accurate understanding of China’s military, so that people don’t get inaccurate information from some other media outlets,” he said, without elaborating.
Part of the rare charm offensive included lunch in the mess hall with startled looking Chinese troops, who smiled nervously while politely answering questions on salary and housing, adding they had only been told about the visit on Saturday.
Barely mentioned were the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square — no, the unit was not involved — and Taiwan, the self-ruled, democratic island China claims as its own.
Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.
“Just because you are getting stronger does not mean you are going to become a bully,” Zhang said, when asked if China’s increased military spending may destabilize the region.
“I just want to make the military the best it can be, so it can complete its mission,” he added.
Posted by: D.B.