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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 July 2007, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
China showcases transformed army
As China marks the 80th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army, the BBC's Michael Bristow in Beijing looks at how the force has modernised.

PLA's 196th infantry brigade at their base outside Beijing - 30/07/07
The People's Liberation Army has 2.3 million serving troops
China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), the official name for the country's armed forces, started life as a ramshackle guerrilla troop.

It is now becoming one of the world's most advanced military forces, with nuclear weapons and a reach that even extends into space.

It is that modern side of the military that is mainly on display at a current exhibition to mark the anniversary, which falls on 1 August.

Outside Beijing's Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution, large crowds queue patiently for a chance to get into the exhibition.

This lack of transparency in China's military affairs will naturally and understandably prompt international responses that hedge against the unknown
US Congress report

Inside, there is an impressive array of hardware on show, including tanks, aircraft and the latest high-tech gadgetry.

To the sound of uplifting military music, played over loudspeakers, visitors can see everything from the latest uniforms to historic documents.

The message is clear - China has a well-equipped, highly motivated professional army ready to defend the country.

That is an impression shared by others outside the country.

In its annual report to Congress in May, the US Defense Department said the PLA was going through a "comprehensive transformation".

Although its power currently remains limited, the report said, China's military could challenge the US some time in the future.

The US highlights China's new fleet of Jin-class nuclear submarines, with a range of more than 8,000km (5,000 miles), as a potential threat.

Modernisation fears

To pay for all this new equipment, China has had a decade of double-digit growth in military spending.

This year, the PLA's budget is expected to increase by 17.8% to reach 350bn yuan ($46bn, 23bn).

Analysts believe the real spending level is two to three times higher than this published figure.

Tour guide shows the PLA's new uniforms at the 80th anniversary exhibition
The PLA recently unveiled new uniforms
The inability to work out exactly how much it really spends on its military is just one of many transparency issues worrying China's neighbours and rivals.

"This lack of transparency in China's military affairs will naturally and understandably prompt international responses that hedge against the unknown," the US report to Congress warned.

Foreign governments, however, are not the only ones worrying about the PLA's modernisation. Chinese leaders are also concerned - but for different reasons.

Writing in a magazine run by the Chinese Communist Party earlier this month, Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan appeared to say the process could go too far.

In the article, he complains that "hostile forces" want to "westernise" and "de-politicise" the military to split it from the party.

China, it seems, wants a lean, modern military, but one that does not forget it was established to serve the party, not the country.

That message is clear to anyone visiting the anniversary exhibition.

In a summary of the PLA's guiding principles, obeying the party comes before defending the motherland.

So what does all this mean? It means that China's 2.3 million-strong PLA continues to be more than just a fighting force - it is also a political force.

When Jiang Zemin stepped down as president in 2003, he remained chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, the body that controls the PLA.

Experts say Jiang kept the military post to maintain his political influence. He only retired from the post, in favour of Chinese President Hu Jintao, in 2004.

So as the PLA celebrates its 80th birthday, it is carrying out changes that emphasise both the future and the past.

Those changes will be felt inside and outside the country.

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