By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN
BEIJING (AP) — China's military is training propaganda teams for the first time to explain its actions to the outside world, as the traditionally insular and secretive force engages more with other countries' militaries and deploys its ships and personnel abroad.
An initial class of 51 officers graduated this week in an effort to "raise the opinion-forming ability of the force's foreign propaganda team and advance the innovation and development of the military propaganda work," the official People's Liberation Army Daily reported Friday.
The two-week training course included classes dealing with China's recent dispatch of ships to carry out anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, as well as joint China-India anti-terror drills and other international missions, it said.
Course work included mock news conferences with reporters from the PLA Daily and the official Xinhua News Agency, the PLA Daily said.
In recent years, the army has embarked on U.N. peacekeeping operations, joint training with other countries' militaries, and a growing list of port calls and goodwill missions.
The dispatch in December of three ships to combat piracy off Somalia marked the first time the navy has been sent on a mission so far from China's shores.
Yan Xuetong, head of Tsinghua University's Institute of International Studies, said China's growing military involvement made such media training an imperative.
"The Chinese army needs to know about international practice. They need to know how to show friendliness when meeting foreign military officials, and they need to learn how to give public speeches in front of the media," Yan said.
The military's growing foreign involvement has raised some concerns among regional rivals, such as Japan and India, prompting China to downplay any future aggressive role for its armed forces.
However, Chinese officers remain highly sensitive to what they see as a "China threat" sentiment abroad — reflecting the military's long-standing perception of itself as a purely defensive force that poses no danger to other nations.
The U.S. and other foreign militaries have long complained about the PLA's lack of openness, particularly regarding the intent behind its ballooning defense spending.
China's generals, who take their orders from the Communist Party leadership, have rejected such complaints but have also moved gradually to lower their curtain of secrecy.
In recent years, foreign military attaches have been invited to view some PLA training, while the navies of Japan, the United States and other regional powers have been asked to send vessels to join a sail-by next month marking the Chinese navy's 60th anniversary.
The Defense Ministry has also announced the establishment of a spokesman's office to accept media inquiries, although there has been little apparent follow through.