The Chinese military is celebrating its 80th birthday with snazzy new uniforms, lavish exhibitions and a new degree of transparency for a force long swathed in secrecy.
Yet even with the public relations drive, the buildup of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) continued to stir concern among some of its neighbors. Observers said that even the new openness -- touted by the PLA as a sign of modernization -- remains highly limited.
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," said David Shambaugh, a specialist on the Chinese military at George Washington University in Washington.
"They still operate from a zero-sum mindset that the more information that is known about the PLA, the more insecure China is," Shambaugh said.
The military will be marking its anniversary tomorrow with new uniforms to update the old baggy style that has changed little in the nearly three decades since the Chinese economy began to take off.
An exhibition in Beijing is showcasing many of the fruits of years of double-digit increases in defense spending, transforming a military long regarded as huge but vastly outdated.
Yet it was the halting moves toward greater transparency that were the most striking, apparently motivated both by the demands of military modernization and the need to assuage nervous neighbors.
Those began with the publication of biannual reports on the military in 1998 that have marginally but steadily grown more detailed, even while repeating threats to attack Taiwan.
Since then, increasing numbers of foreign observers have been permitted at PLA exercises. Drills and port visits have been held with the US, French, Indian and other navies, and full-scale exercises held with Russia and other Central Asian states.
And for the first time ever this year, a Chinese general attended a multilateral defense forum, surprising attendees by announcing the PLA's intention to set up an emergency hotline with the US Department of Defense.
The Chinese Defense Ministry was 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," PLA Major-General Luo Yuan (劉源) was quoted as saying in the official China Daily in a story about the PLA exhibition in Beijing.
Much has yet to change though. PLA leaders took the opportunity of the anniversary to recommit to their role as the ruling Communist Party's house army, rejecting any notion of shifting loyalty to the government.
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