BEIJING (AP) — China may make its neighbors nervous with its robust military build-up, but it's also increasingly using the army as part of its charm offensive abroad.
The People's Liberation Army, in a cultural shift for an institution known for strident nationalism and unbending loyalty to the Communist Party, is expanding overseas aid missions and military exchanges in a major way. It sent 50 medics to flood-hit Pakistan this week and dispatched a hospital ship last month on a 105-day trip to poor nations in the Caribbean — right in America's backyard.
The diplomatic push, part of a larger global campaign by the Chinese government, aims to portray China as a responsible rising power, while softening the image of the 2.3 million-member military and boosting its ties with other nations' armed forces.
"It's has been a big step for them, but China appreciates this as a part of the normal practices of respected major powers in their relations with other countries," said Ron Huisken of the Australian National University's Strategic and Defense Studies Center.
China's "soft power" drive also includes foreign aid, cultural exchange and a massive expansion of state television to reach foreign audiences — all attempts to win friends and correct what China considers to be a biased Western portrayal of it.
The military took its first big stab at overseas disaster relief last year, sending helicopters to help out with floods in Pakistan. Last month, the air force flew 7,000 tents to the once-again flood-ravaged country and it is also shipping aid to flooded areas of Thailand.
The People's Liberation Army, or PLA, has also become the biggest contributor of manpower to U.N. peace keeping missions, and its navy is part of a multinational anti-piracy flotilla off the coast of Somalia.
The Peace Ark hospital ship, which sailed to the Horn of Africa last year, set off on Sept. 16 for Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Costa Rica. More than 100 medical personnel are aboard for an operation dubbed Harmonious Mission 2011.
"The international community expects China to play such a role and that is part of China's foreign policy," said Xiong Zhiyong of the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing.
Only recently has the PLA acquired the skills, equipement, and political will to carry out such missions.
Its previous inability to provide relief overseas was especially evident following the 2004 Asian tsunami.
While the U.S. Navy and other countries' militaries rapidly shipped in huge amounts of aid and personnel, and winning tremendous goodwill for their governments, China could do little more than send a medical team to Indonesia, along with tents and other supplies.
Overseas missions also help grow its ability to deal with domestic disasters, such as the massive 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Xiong said.
At home, students from across the developing world are increasingly coming to China to take two-year military command courses, while the PLA's University of Science and Technology has taken in a dozen army officer candidates from Laos, Mongolia, Turkmenistan and seven other countries.
The military's newspaper called that a sign the force is "integrating itself into the world with a much more open attitude."
Foreign military attaches are being granted more access to Chinese bases and training exercises, although much of that is carefully scripted. Top commanders have also began making more frequent visits abroad and participating in multinational forums such as the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that attracts top defense officials from the U.S., Britain, and other major nations.
The exchanges are part of the PLA's effort to evolve into a modern force, right down to the introduction of smart new dress uniforms intended to break down the distinction between PLA officers and their Western counterparts.
The military has been upgrading its warplanes, ships and submarines, and began sea trials this summer on a refurbished Soviet aircraft carrier, demonstrating how a once-decrepit force seems determined to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. and other regional militaries.
While that modernization disconcerts the U.S. and China's neighbors, China says it's needed to defend its interests. Some analysts say military diplomacy is a way to show off its strength to potential rivals, while also joining in international relief efforts.
"There is little trust between China and the U.S. so China's recent response is to demonstrate its military capability, which also fits its commitment to helping the global community," said Ni Lexiong, a military expert at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.
Humanitarian missions such as the dispatch of a hospital ship to Cuba also deliver a signal of China's military resolve to its own public without risking actual confrontations with the U.S. or others, Ni said.
"The enormous public pressure requires a response and this doubly demonstrates the Chinese navy's logistical capability," Ni said.
The U.S. military for its part has been generally supportive of the PLA's humanitarian drive, saying that boosts transparency and chances for peaceful interactions.
"As the Chinese military develops the capability to deliver medical and humanitarian assistance beyond its immediate region, there will be opportunities for the United States and China to collaborate and share," the Pentagon said in its most recent report to Congress on China's armed forces.
But on military exchanges, the PLA has yet to grasp the intrinsic value of strong ties, said Australian expert Huisken, citing the recent suspension of exchanges with the Pentagon over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. It's unclear what if any exchanges have so far been suspended or canceled.
"It remains a relatively superficial program," he said. "We still don't have a clue what their real aspirations are."