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China pulls back curtain on expanding massive military might, revealing in defence report it was 1.4 million members

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April 23, 2013

China has laid bare the scale of its rapidly expanding military might for the first time in a paper that argued that the American “pivot to Asia” was destabilising the region.

China’s People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, has some 850,000 service members spread across seven regional commands, according to the defence report issued Tuesday. The navy and air force have 235,000 and 398,000 service members respectively.

The paper also alludes to China’s powerful Second Artillery Force. Described as “the country’s core force for strategic deterrence,” it oversees China’s nuclear arsenal and is tasked with “deterring other countries from using nuclear weapons against China.”

The total number of service members listed was 1.48 million. In 2006, China said the military had a total of 2.3 million members. It was not clear if the new count represented a real reduction in numbers, or if the shortfall was made up by other ground force units that appeared to have been omitted from the count, including the Second Artillery Force.

Andy Wong / AP files
Andy Wong / AP files Chinese Army Z-9WZ attack helicopter, designed and manufactured by China, during a demonstration for press at a base of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Army Aviation 4th Helicopter Regiment, ahead of Army Day on Aug. 1, 2014 on the outskirts of Beijing, China.

Xinhua, the state-run news agency, said the paper represented the first time China had made public “the actual number of army, navy and air force servicemen.” China’s “main missile line-up” was also being divulged for the first time, Xinhua added.

Last year, China said its annual defence budget — now the world’s second largest — would grow to about 65 billion pounds. The report, which contained few specific details of China’s military structure, was emphatic in describing what it said was the country’s commitment to a doctrine of peaceful development. “China will never seek hegemony or behave in a hegemonic manner, nor will it engage in military expansion,” it argued.

The report also attacked President Barack Obama’s so-called “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific region, suggesting that his policy of boosting the American military footprint there was causing frictions.

“The U.S. is adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy and the regional landscape is undergoing profound changes,” it said. “Frequently [this policy] makes the situation there more tense.”

Beijing views the “pivot” — under which 60 per cent of the U.S. navy forces are to be deployed to the region by 2020 — as an attempt to contain China’s rise and block the country’s development. Speaking at the report’s launch in Beijing, Yang Yujun, a defence ministry spokesman, hinted that America’s increasing focus on the region was “not conducive to the upholding of peace and stability.”

“We hope that the relevant parties would do more to enhance the mutual trust between countries in the region and contribute to peace and stability,” Colonel Yang said.

STR / AFP / Getty Images files
STR / AFP / Getty Images files This photo taken on September 15, 2011 shows a group of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers learning how to keep their guns steady during training at their base in Luzhou, in southwest China's Sichuan province.

China’s state-run media also carried opinion pieces critical of America’s growing role in Asia. An editorial in the China Daily newspaper argued: “There remain doubts about whether the U.S. will play a constructive role in the region.

“The U.S. needs to ensure that its involvement in Asian affairs contributes to lasting peace and stability in the region. China does not oppose a bigger U.S. role in the Asia-Pacific as long as it acts in a more constructive and responsible way and strives to respect the interests of all countries in the region.”

Xinhua praised the report as a sign of military transparency, although Colonel Yang admitted that there was no such thing as “absolute military transparency.”