Features

Published: Monday July 28, 2014 MYT 5:45:00 PM
Updated: Wednesday July 30, 2014 MYT 1:11:51 PM

China's army make robots dance, but that's all you're getting

The world's largest military force offers outsiders a glimpse of its whimsical side, but continues to shield its true power.

In what is seen as an attempt to assuage worries about its growing military might, China cracks open the door on its secretive armed forces on July 22 during Beijing’s annual trip for foreign reporters to a Chinese military base — complete with smiling soldiers, dancing robots and even George Michael's Careless Whisper.

This year, journalists were taken to an engineering academy in Beijing’s southwestern suburbs, where its officers went to great lengths to put a non-threatening face on the world’s largest military force, with more than 2.2 million active personnel and another 2 million in reserve. In comparison, the US army — the world’s second largest — has 1.3 million active and 850,000 personnel.

Fresh faces: They may be rookies but they're part of the largest military complex in the world, the People's Liberation Army. In these photos, soldiers at a military engineering academy located just outside Beijing pose with their arsenal and execute a drill for what has become a yearly international outreach programme for foreign media in order to demystify the army's enigmatic and often contentious image. — Reuters

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 defence spending. However, the nation’s armed forces has been quick to brush away suspicions of a more threatening agenda.

“It is not necessary to pick an enemy or an opponent for combat while developing one’s 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 joined. “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.”

Showing that not all of military life is ultra-serious, 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. However, none of the sincere and whimsical displays by the soldiers can detract from the ultimate purpose of the base: to train up and coming officers for leadership with a specific focus on tanks.

More, more, more: China's military spending is going up, up, up, and this has been causing concern for the US and neighbouring countries like Taiwan and Japan. But Chinese officials say not all of it is going into building weapons, claiming that it's to improve living conditions and pay for soldiers. Above, a scene from the academy's digital electronic laboratory. Below, a military personnel documenting the foreign media tour.

Its location is also significant, sitting 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 sombre 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 has 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% to 808.2bil yuan (RM414.7bil), a number many governments and analysts say is not representative of the country’s true defence outlays.

Forge ahead: Although the US is still considered the supreme military superpower, analysts say China and Russia are wasting no time in playing catch up, in what they say may spark a new global arms race. Is the world ready for another cold war? Perhaps it never really ended. 

Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng dismisses such worries, saying Beijing is 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 says to reporters. “So giving foreign reporters this experience is extremely necessary.”

Still, Geng was not forthcoming 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,” he replies. “At this time of year, there are a lot of military exercises going on, so perhaps now would not work.” With that, the door closes once more. — Reuters

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