To the sound of Shakira's Waka Waka (This Time For Africa) robots demonstrated their dance steps, screaming recruits drilled with bayonets and tanks rolled as China's military offered a rare moment of openness on Tuesday.
The exposition, held at the Armoured Forces Engineering Academy in Beijing, was touted by senior People's Liberation Army (PLA) officials as an opportunity to burnish civilian-military ties ahead of Army Day, the August 1 commemoration of the Communist-led army's founding.
“The most important thing is that we have mutual understanding,” Liu Degang, the academy's vice-president, told AFP. “We undergo training just like every other country in the world. We also love peace.”
A promotional guide for the event noted that “cadets, instructors and commanders would like to be interviewed”, and young soldiers chatted with reporters while showing off technological projects including drones and small Transformer-like robots in bright primary colours.
The dancing machines' military purpose was not explained, but the opening lyrics of the Colombian singer's 2010 World Cup anthem used as their backing track run: “You're a good soldier/Choosing your battles/Pick yourself up and dust yourself off/And back in the saddle.
“You're on the front line/Everyone's watching/You know it's serious, we're getting closer/This isn't over.”
Hanging over the event's convivial atmosphere were questions about China's ballooning military spending, its tense relations with rival Japan and a much-publicised anti-graft campaign that has swept up one of the Chinese army's most powerful officials.
A fearsome procession of 10 rolling tanks - intended to showcase the PLA's military prowess - also held echoes of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, a subject about which any public discussion has long been banned by the ruling Communist Party.
China, home to the world's largest military, far outnumbers its Asian neighbours in manpower, ships, aircraft and defence spending.
Its official military budget - which in recent years has seen regular double-digit rises - last year came to $119.5 billion, far short of the US's $495.5 billion but nonetheless sparking concern in the region.
China and Japan have long been at odds over what Beijing sees as Tokyo's failure to atone for its military atrocities before and during World War II.
At the same time, tensions are mounting between the two over disputed islands in the East China Sea, as well as between Beijing and Hanoi, Manila and others over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
At an opening briefing for Chinese and foreign reporters, the academy's commandant Major-General Xu Hang was asked to explain the rationale behind China's military buildup and whether Beijing had a particular “enemy” in mind.
“It is not necessary to pick an enemy or an opponent in combat while developing one's military,” Xu replied. “I think for the PLA's development, it is in co-ordination and consistent with the overall development of China.”
He described last month's ouster for graft of powerful retired general Xu Caihou, the former vice-chairman of China's Central Military Commission as “an individual case about corruption which does not represent the overall image of the PLA”.
“This is a problem which has existed since ancient times in all countries,” he said, adding that “we need to reflect and draw lessons from such corruption cases”.
The anti-graft campaign under Chinese President Xi Jinping has been heavily publicised, but critics say no systemic reforms have been introduced to increase transparency to help battle endemic corruption. - Sapa-AFP