BEIJING (Reuters) - With dancing robots and smiling soldiers and to the strains of British singer George Michael, China cracked open the door on its secretive armed forces on Tuesday during Beijing’s annual attempt to assuage worries about its growing military might.
China has jangled regional nerves over the past few months with an increasing assertiveness over territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, set against the backdrop of rising defense spending.
But on a yearly trip for foreign reporters to a Chinese military base, this time to an engineering academy in Beijing’s southwestern suburbs, officers went to great lengths to put a non-threatening face on the world’s largest military.
“It is not necessary to pick an enemy or an opponent for combat while developing ones military. I think the People’s Liberation Army’s development is in line with China’s overall development,” base commander Xu Hang told reporters.
During a carefully escorted tour of the leafy base, soldiers stopped to chat and patiently answer questions about everything from their salary to why they wanted to join up.
At one point a group of cadets proudly showed off miniature dancing robots they had designed, as piped Western pop music played in the background, including a musak-version of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper”.
“When I was small I wanted really badly to be a soldier,” said a beaming Liao Guofeng, 26. “In China soldiers get respect and now my dream has come true.”
The base, though, exists for a more serious purpose — to train up and coming officers for leadership with a specific focus on tanks.
The base also sits very close to one of China’s most potently symbolic sites, the Marco Polo Bridge, where a skirmish in 1937 sparked an all-out Sino-Japanese war and which today is a place of somber remembrance.
China-Japan ties are at the lowest ebb in years due not only to the dispute over a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, but also friction over a shared bitter wartime past.
Commander Xu said his cadets made regular visits not only to the bridge but other places of historic importance.
“It is a normal practice for us to educate cadets about the fine traditions of the People’s Liberation Army and bring them to important locations that tell the history of the military and the country,” he added.
Despite the military’s attempts at openness — this visit was the seventh of its kind for foreign journalists — a culture of secrecy and suspicion remains deeply embedded in China.
That had added to concern that China is not telling the whole truth when it comes to defense spending, a figure that this year will rise by 12.2 percent to 808.2 billion yuan ($130 billion), a number many governments and analysts say is not representative of the country’s true defense outlays.
Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng brushed off such worries, saying Beijing was committed to transparency and explaining itself to the outside world.
“We’ve noticed in recent years that along with China’s international influence increasing so has exposure globally to its military. But there are some reports on China’s military which are not quite accurate or are mistaken,” he told reporters. “So giving foreign reporters this experience is extremely necessary.”
Still, Geng prevaricated when asked if next year’s trip might be to visit China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
“I can’t say that this possibility does not exist,” Geng said. “At this time of year there are lots of military exercises going on, so perhaps going now would not work.”
($1 = 6.2061 Chinese Yuan)
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Michael Perry