A buzz of rotors from the mountainside heralded the appearance of a fleet of four Z-9WZ helicopters, state-of-the-art Chinese military aircraft.
Without disrupting its formation, the fleet ascended abruptly at a 90-degree angle, turned sharply, descended to within a hairbreadth of the ground and flaunted their hovering capability.
The date was July 24, and the venue was a base outside Beijing for China's Army Aviation 4th Helicopter Regiment. I was one of the reporters invited from about 70 foreign and Hong Kong media organizations to the occasion ahead of the Aug. 1 Army Day, which celebrates the founding of the People's Liberation Army in 1927.
A senior regiment official said the regiment has more than 40 helicopters, whose missions include defense of the capital, reconnaissance and transport of troops. They have engaged in relief activities following the 2008 Great Sichuan Earthquake and the recovery of a manned rocket.
I could not believe it when I heard that the Chinese military, renowned for its secrecy, was to offer a showing of one of its elite units to the foreign media. The military has held presentations of its troops to the media around the same time every year since 2008, but they were mostly centered around counterterrorism and military parades, where there was never anything novel.
This time around, however, the drills were full of surprises.
Ten or so state-of-the-art helicopters were on display at the base. Their cockpits and engines were open so that anybody could peer into them. My heart pounded as I photographed them, but nobody stopped me.
Missiles and rockets for operational use were also on display. Pilots were available for media interviews.
"This is the best service we have ever provided," said a senior Chinese military official who attended the open base event. "You must have realized that our military has dramatically enhanced its transparency."
It certainly is progress and deserves praise that the military presented its state-of-the-art core weapons to foreign media without concealing anything. But the latest drills alone are not enough to convince me that the Chinese military has improved its transparency.
That is because, on closer inspection, I sense the presence of other, hidden intentions.
To begin with, the Chinese military has presented the helicopters because they constitute the core weapons to be used in the event of advances into marine areas and occupation of remote islands.
The Chinese military has drawn up internal plans on grabbing remote islands in the South China Sea, where Beijing is at loggerheads with the Philippines and Vietnam over sovereignty issues. Under those plans, armed helicopters are supposed to attack the islands from the air before landing crafts and amphibious tanks begin their assaults, according to a source at a military think tank.
The military appears to be applying pressure on the Philippines and Vietnam by showing off the prowess of its helicopter-operating technologies and skills to audiences both at home and abroad at the very time that tensions are rising between China and its southern neighbors.
It also appears certain that the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa, administered by Japan and claimed by China, are also on the minds of the Chinese military.
State-of-the-art armed helicopters of the same type as the Z-9WZ, which appeared in the latest show, are in use as carrier-based helicopters and have approached Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers in alarming proximity in the East China Sea.
That is a strong message, in my opinion, that Beijing wants to hold Tokyo in check.
It also came to mind that the timing of the media viewing coincided with Washington's deployment of the MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft to Japan.
On the day of the media show, the Global Times, affiliated with the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, ran a front-page article under a headline suggesting that the deployment of the Ospreys is intended to shore up Japan's defense of the Diaoyu Islands. Diaoyu is the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands.
That also indicates Beijing's strong wariness.
Over the past several years, the Chinese military has been eager to impress the international community with enhanced transparency--which the lack of has been a target of criticism--by issuing white papers on defense and holding regular news conferences. I think the military has duly brushed up its presentation skills to a much more sophisticated level than ever before.
As a news reporter from a neighboring country facing a booming major power, I keep in mind a need to carefully analyze its messages to uncover the nation's true intentions.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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