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Opening Up the PLA

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Major progress is being made in increasing the "transparency" of China's armed forces - known collectively as the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). "Transparency" is a Washington term as senior U.S. military officers, defense officials, and analysts seek to know more about the strength and intentions of China's defense establishment.

The outgoing chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Peter Pace, visited China in March 2007 and gave the PLA high marks for the access that he was given. Pace was allowed to see China's newest fighter aircraft and was given a ride in the PLA's most advanced tank. "They took me to places no other U.S. officer had been," Pace said. "They took me to their private offices. They took me to their command centers and showed me their maps and their plans."

More recently, Admiral Mike Mullen, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations who will relieve General Pace as JCS chairman this fall, returned from a China visit. Mullen declared that he now had a better grasp of the PLA modernization efforts and "There's a long way to go, but I'm reassured...I'm very encouraged about their commitment to continuing to improve this relationship."

Reportedly, other Pentagon officials are less impressed, noting that U.S. military officers are routinely denied access to Chinese sites during trips there, even as the Americans allowed visiting Chinese officers into some of the United States' most sophisticated and advanced facilities.

"What we expect the Chinese to do is give us the same level of access that we give them here in the United States," explained Richard P. Lawless, who recently stepped down as the Pentagon's senior expert on Asia. "We make a great effort to give them access - reasonable access - and we make a great effort to let them understand how our military really works, and if that cannot be reciprocated, then we have a very serious disconnect," Lawless added.

Still, Chinese military officers in the United States tend to have more restrictions placed on them than many other foreign representatives, including officers from the Russian Federation. And, considering the long-closed society of China and the high degree of secrecy that shrouded all PLA activities and programs until a few years ago, China is becoming increasingly transparent from a military viewpoint.

Although some observers view U.S. and Chinese naval ship visit exchanges as superficial, as well as the recent U.S.-China naval search-and-rescue exercise, such steps are truly landmark changes in the relationship of the two nations.

-- Norman Polmar

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