China's military is celebrating its 80th birthday Wednesday with snazzy new uniforms, lavish exhibitions and a degree of transparency for a force long swathed in secrecy.
Yet even with the public relations drive, the buildup of the People's Liberation Army continues to stir concern among some of China's neighbors. Observers say the new openness - touted as a sign of modernization - remains highly limited.
China's army "is making significant efforts to improve their foreign military exchanges, but still has a long way to go in the area of transparency," said David Shambaugh, an expert on the Chinese military at George Washington University.
"They still operate from a zero-sum mind-set that the more information that is known about the PLA, the more insecure China is," Shambaugh said.
An exhibition in Beijing showcases the fruits of years of double-digit increases in defense spending, transforming a military long regarded as huge but vastly outdated.
But it is the halting moves toward greater transparency that are the most striking, apparently motivated both by the demands of military modernization and the need to assuage nervous neighbors.
They began with the publication of biannual reports on the military in 1998 that have slowly grown more detailed, even while repeating threats to attack Taiwan, the self-governing island that China says is its territory.
Since then, increasing numbers of foreign observers have been permitted at military exercises. Drills and port visits have been held with the American, French, Indian and other navies, and full-scale exercises have been held with Russia and Central Asian states.
For the first time, a Chinese general attended a multilateral defense forum this year and surprised attendees by announcing China's intention to set up an emergency hotline with the Pentagon. China's Defense Ministry is also reportedly planning to appoint a media spokesman - a major step for a body that until recently didn't even have a published phone number.
And spending for the 2.3-million-member force - the world's largest army - continues to balloon, rising nearly 18 percent this year to $44.94-billion.
That puts China roughly in the same neighborhood as Japan, Russia and Britain in defense spending, although it spends less than one-tenth of what the U.S. military costs.
China has spent billions recently on military hardware from Russia and has claimed breakthroughs in its defense industry. In January, it blew up one of its defunct satellites with a missile-launched projectile, demonstrating it is capable of blinding high-tech armies like America's.
The new hardware has been accompanied by strategic thinking that looks increasingly beyond China's shores. Chinese military journals espouse the need to protect seaborne trade and energy supply routes, as well as blunt the U.S. military's overarching superiority in the Pacific.