BEIJING – Not many years ago, foreign reporters in China trying to call the country’s secretive military couldn’t even get a connection because phone numbers assigned to the journalists were barred from reaching the Defense Ministry.
On Thursday, they were finally permitted to attend the Defense Ministry’s monthly news briefing, marking a small milestone in the increasingly confident military’s efforts to project a more transparent image.
Restrictions still apply and there is no sign of an improvement in the generally paltry amount and poor quality of information released by the People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest standing military with 2.3 million members.
Officers who oversee the briefings say the new invitations reflect a desire by the top brass to allay foreigners’ concerns over fast-expanding budgets, vast hardware improvements, and an increasingly clear determination to use the military to assert China’s interests and territorial claims.
“We hope this will help convey a better and more objective understanding of the Chinese military to the rest of the world,” chief spokesman Geng Yansheng said at Thursday’s briefing.
Although the PLA remains the house army of the ruling Communist Party — dedicated above all to its survival in power — it has been eager to portray itself as a force for security and stability by taking part in international forums and peacekeeping missions such as anti-piracy patrols off the Somali coast.
China has chafed against accusations of opacity from the U.S., Japan and others, and now publishes limited status reports on force size, weaponry and missions. It has also been taking part in an increasing number of joint drills with others, this year for the first time joining the world’s largest international naval exercises hosted by the U.S. known as the Rim of the Pacific.
In October, Chinese forces will also join those from Australia and the U.S. for their first-ever trilateral exercise.
The ministry began holding monthly briefings in 2011, but restricted attendance to reporters from mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, the self-ruling island claimed by Beijing as its territory.
Foreign media were limited to sending their questions by fax. Still, that was a vast improvement over the ministry’s previous accessibility.
Less than a decade ago, calls or faxes from phone numbers in neighborhoods where foreigners were allowed to live and work simply wouldn’t connect with the ministry.
Questions at Thursday’s briefing touched on prosecutions of senior generals accused of corruption, recruitment strategies and ongoing military exercises in southern China blamed for causing widespread flight delays and cancellations. English translation was provided and an English transcript was to go up on the ministry’s website shortly after the briefing.
The briefings are held at the ministry’s foreign affairs office, across town from the hulking Defense Ministry building where meetings with visiting delegations are held.
In contrast to China’s monthly briefings, the U.S. military holds news conferences open to all journalists up to four times per week, along with copious background briefings and wide access to exercises, bases and operations abroad — something that remains a distant prospect for the PLA.