dijous, 1 d’octubre del 2009

A military catwalk

"Celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) reached a climax on Thursday morning with a grand military parade in Tiananmen Square in the capital to showcase the rise of the Middle Kingdom. Some advanced hardware developed and made in China and which has been kept secret, such as the People's Liberation Army's (PLA's) airborne early warning and control aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, were on display during the parade, which was reviewed by President Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders.
The massive parade featuring thousands of troops - a Xinhua report said it involved nearly 200,000 servicemen and women and civilian - also showcased tanks and trucks carrying nuclear missiles, as fighter planes screamed overhead and a 2,000-strong military band belted out martial tunes. Following a 60-gun salute, the Chinese flag was hoisted in the square where Mao Zedong had announced the birth of the republic on October 1, 1949.

Hu, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, reviewed the troops from a black open-roof limousine. He wore a black Mao-style tunic, viewed by analysts as a symbol of his control of the military. In a speech delivered from the same place where Mao spoke 60 years ago, Hu said China had a bright future and that it had taken strides in the economic world, and that the country would unite all cultures and ethnicities. "Today, a socialist China [is] geared toward modernization, the world and the future, and towers majestically in the East," Hu said.

What is novel in this year's military parade is not only the display of hitherto classified weapons, but also Beijing's unprecedented transparency in the release of information regarding military modernization, as well as the organization of the parade itself. Analysts say this shows Beijing's growing confidence in opening up its military to improve its image overseas. In the past, what weapons were to be displayed in a parade and the training of the guard of honor were kept top secret. But this year, weeks ago, PLA generals began to reveal what weapons were to be showcased. Rehearsals for the parade on weekend evenings were also open to the media. Chinese journalists were invited to camps to cover the training of the guards of honor of the three services. For instance, on September 21, Lieutenant General Fang Fenghui, general director of the military parade, told the state-run Xinhua News Agency that 52 types of new weapons systems, all developed with Chinese technology, were to be showcased. Chinese Minister of Defense General Liang Guanglie also proudly said the Chinese defense industry had been upgraded from copying Russian-made weapons in the 1950s and the 1960s to become self-reliant in design and manufacture from the 1970s onwards. He announced that some of China's most advanced weaponry was already being used. A senior PLA officer based in the southern city of Shenzhen told Asia Times Online, "The increased transparency shows our growing confidence in modernizing the military with our own efforts. In the past, we were shy to show our weapons, largely because they were quite backward. But now we are catching up rapidly. We are confident that we can create a weaponry system of our own comparable to those of the United States, Russia and European nations." Li Daguang, a senior military expert at the PLA University of National Defense, told the Global Times, a sister publication of the Communist Party's People's Daily, "A Chinese weaponry system, which is practical, cheap and suitable for defense on home soil, will eventually come into being." China has to rely on its own efforts because "the international environment happens to be unhelpful for China's weapon development", he said, citing weapons embargoes against China by the European Union and the United States.

As part of Beijing's efforts to increase transparency in its military and improve its image overseas, as well as to showcase the advancement of its military industry, the PLA opened a camp in Beijing to foreign journalists on the eve of Army Day on August 1.

On July 28, Colonel Leng Jiesong stood alone on a dias in the conference hall of the PLA's Third Guard Division base in Beijing, looking anxious as a horde of journalists settled themselves. The colonel commands 10,000 disciplined soldiers at the base, and the unruly media visibly unsettled him. Leng said he was glad the PLA could finally meet the international media because it was "a big step forward in the process of opening up" the army, and he proudly proclaimed that all of the hardware to be displayed on October 1 would be Chinese-made. Defense is the only industrial sector in which China has moved forward without strong support from the US, the EU and Japan. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, the US and the EU have maintained a weapons embargo on China that limits defense trade between their national companies.

This has resulted in China struggling to keep the PLA's equipment updated, especially in comparison to neighbors such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and even India, which this year built its first nuclear-powered submarine in collaboration with several Western suppliers.

All the same, China is the world's leading weapons importer, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), with more than 90% of its foreign purchases coming from Russia. In terms of investment per infantry unit, the Chinese military muscle is much lower than other top countries because the PLA is the biggest army in the world, with 2.3 million soldiers. Even this is down from the six million in service 25 years ago. Former US intelligence officer Dennis J Blasko writes in his 2006 book The Chinese Army Today that most of the imports go to the navy and the air force, while "the vast majority of equipment in the PLA ground forces is produced by the Chinese defense industries. Much of the ground forces' weaponry is based on Soviet designs of the 1950s and 1960s, which have been modified and upgraded for contemporary use."

The US government is firmly committed to the weapons embargo, while this is not the case in the EU. SIPRI notes that in 2008, French contractors sold China US$72 million in military equipment, 4% of total French military exports. The United Kingdom sold $30 million and Germany $5 million. Gudrun Wacker, a China expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, says such sales are possible because "the embargo is not legally binding. Especially, the UK and France declared in the 1990s that they have their own interpretation of the embargo." The exports are "mainly engines for helicopters or radars, but no platforms and no 'lethal weapons'," says Wacker. She believes that a priority for the PLA is to improve its professionalism. One of the weakest points of the PLA is a lack of combat experience. The country's last major conflict was in 1978, when China failed to invade Vietnam after the latter occupied Cambodia with the blessing of the Soviet Union. "The lack of experience is one of the reasons why China is doing more and more military exercises, including with other countries," said Wacker.

In his book, Blasko recounts that ancient war treatises are important for the PLA. "These ancient and modern texts provide the PLA with a military heritage that is imprinted on soldiers before they enter the service through their social roots and then throughout their professional military education experience." The aim of the Communist Party is to modernize the PLA in a way that will combine this ancient knowledge with high-technology resources.

Li Shaoting, the commanding officer of the Third Guard Division, insisted that the PLA had nothing to envy in the US or any other big power in terms of the quality of light weapons and the skills of the infantry. The times when China went to war with millions of soldiers to compensate for a lack of military technology were over, he said. Li quoted from the Defense White Book released by the government in 2008, which introduced the mantra of a "new PLA". "The priority is a technological revolution, to move from mechanization to informationalization." This evolution is first to be achieved in the navy and the air force; it is imperative that China can control sea trade lanes and gain air superiority.

Ten years ago, the 50th anniversary parade was used to indicate the direction in which the PLA was heading and which military areas required significant investments. Foreign governments and defense corporations will be paying close attention to Thursday's parade for the same reason. Defense Minister Liang recently told Xinhua that China had drawn up a three-step development strategy to modernize its military by 2050. According to the blueprint, the army will give priority to nationwide mobility, instead of regional defense. The navy will develop strong coastal defense capabilities, as well as means to fight further out to sea. The air force will be upgraded from mere territorial defense to a combination of offense and defense. And finally, China's missile systems will be used for both conventional and nuclear launches. While reviewing the troops on Thursday, President Hu shouted through a microphone, "Greetings, comrades" and "Comrades, you are working hard." The soldiers barked back in unison, "Greetings, leader" and "We serve the people". Clearly, Beijing has decided that the troops will have the best possible arms and equipment to do their job.

Wu Zhong and Cristian Segura, Asia Times Online, China's military struts its stuff.