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Chinese Army opens (small) window on operations

The PLA gave foreign reporters a rare tour of a base outside Beijing this week and announced a bilingual website slated to debut Aug.1, the Army's 82nd birthday.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 1, 2009



Beijing

Foreign reporters this week got a rare peek inside an infantry base of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). At the same time, officials were reportedly putting the final touches to a bilingual PLA website that is due to go live on Aug. 1, the 82nd anniversary of its foundation.

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Taken together, these efforts are designed to signal greater transparency by a 2.3 million-strong military whose rapid expansion has stirred unease among other foreign powers, including Japan and the United States. But these baby steps seem unlikely to silence the debate over China's military capacity and how it intends to use it in future.

On Tuesday, Adm. Timothy Keating, who commands US forces in Asia, said the US and China would soon resume military talks that had been suspended last October over US arms sales to Taiwan. Speaking after two days of bilateral meetings in Washington, he said the overall atmosphere had improved between the two countries.

That same day, Col. Leng Jie Song, commander of the PLA's 3rd Guard Division, welcomed two busloads of foreign visitors to its base outside Beijing. He said the PLA was gradually opening its doors to outsiders to build trust and to avoid any "misunderstanding" between militaries.

"China is more and more open to the outside world. So is the PLA. We are speeding up this process," he told reporters.

In a brisk tour, reporters visited kitchens, canteens, dormitories, and other base facilities. The infantry division is tasked with defending the capital against attack and has more than 10,000 personnel, though few were visible on the tour.

Soldiers then went through their paces on a training field. Reporters watched displays of marksmanship and hand-to-hand combat, including the firing of 82mm mortars into hillside bunkers. The final exercise pitted a counterterrorism squad against an escaping vehicle of balaclava-clad men who holed up in a concrete building.

Asked about the nature of the terrorist threat to China, Mr. Leng simply replied, "Xinjiang, Tibet." Both are autonomous regions that have been roiled by ethnic unrest that the Chinese government blames on separatist elements.

Leng said several foreign military delegations, including from the US, had visited the base. "We can learn from each other," he said.

In fact, much of China's military infrastructure is off-limits and shrouded in secrecy, says James Shinn, former assistant secretary of defense for Asia under President George W. Bush. Moreover, US policymakers are unsure of the PLA's doctrine and its intentions, which are crucial for strategic planning.

As a result, "the US and China's other neighbors must plan for the worst case.' That's not being belligerent, that's what military planners have to do," says Mr. Shinn, a professor at Princeton University in New Jersey.

How far these mysteries are cleared up by the PLA's official website is debatable. State media have trumpeted the website, to be modeled after the Pentagon's defenselink.mil, as an exercise in transparency.

It is expected to replace an existing site.

But no details have been announced of its scope and timeliness. And calls Friday to the Ministry of National Defense requesting further details proved unsuccessful.

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