China gives foreign media rare look at elite military unit

Reuters , Thursday 21 Jul 2011

China showed off the friendly face of its most high profile military unit to foreign journalists on Thursday in a bid to allay concerns about its military might, but officers deflected questions about modernisation efforts

Soldiers from the honour guards of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) march during a welcome ceremony as part of a media visit at their base in Beijing July 21, 2011 (Photo: Ruters)

Visits to Chinese military bases for foreign media are rare, although the government now tries to organise them once a year to assuage regional worries about the lack of transparency and growing prowess of its armed services.

The Guards of Honour of the Three Services, chosen for this year's trip, are an elite corps especially drafted for their discipline, tall stature and solid grounding in politics and who take part in all welcome ceremonies for foreign leaders.

The unit is renowned in China not only because these ceremonies are always shown on state television's main evening news: the guards of honour also appeared at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the handover of Hong Kong from British rule in 1997.

"This is a good way to show the world about China's military development," Defence Ministry Spokesman Geng Yansheng told reporters at the base, hidden behind a non-descript facade off a main road in Beijing's western suburbs.

"The aim of this type of event is to give reporters a chance to get up close with the soldiers and allow people to understand the thinking of the People's Liberation Army," he added. "We are proactively pushing this kind of opening up."

One of the unit's senior colonels, Liu Shixu, said his goose-stepping soldiers -- who have trained similar teams in Africa and marched in parades in Mexico, Venezuela and Italy --were in fact a sign of China's peaceful intentions.

"The People's Liberation Honour Guard has shown people all over the world that we are a force for peace," Liu said.

Soldiers patiently answered questions about their training regime, whether they were allowed girlfriends and which foreign leaders had impressed them most, managing to maintain smiles despite the muggy heat and their heavy uniforms.

"I'm very much impressed by every leader," said the diplomatic Li Qiang, 31, whose high-pitched presentation of the honour guard, complete with ceremonial sword, is a centre point of official welcomes for foreign dignitaries.

China regularly denies its military is for anything other than defensive purposes, and these highly choreographed visits are meant to underscore that.

But defence spending is rising fast, sending jitters within Asia and beyond about the growing military might of the world's second largest economy.

In January China confirmed it had held its maiden test flight of a stealth fighter jet and the country's first aircraft, a former Soviet ship once destined to become a floating casino, could begin sea trials within weeks, according to state media, part of President Hu Jintao's push to modernise the navy.

Pressed on the aircraft carrier, spokesman Geng said he would not answer any questions apart from on the day's visit.

"Relevant details will be announced at an appropriate time," he said, when asked when the carrier would be launched.

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