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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Our series on China next, and a look at its armed forces. The speed of China's military buildup and its flexing of that new power in recent months is making its neighbors - and the U.S. - nervous. But there is debate as to whether the People's Liberation Army, or PLA, poses a real threat.

NPR's Louisa Lim brings us the view from China.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter, music)

LOUISA LIM: I've come to a PLA base in Hong Kong. It's really one of the only days of the year that the base here is open to the public, really as a goodwill gesture for the people of Hong Kong.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: This charm offensive includes marching bands and a Kung Fu demonstration. Its aim, as described by soldier Yu Bin, is to win hearts and minds.

Mr. YU BIN (Soldier, PLA): (Through translator) We've done a lot of work on our image in Hong Kong. I don't think people should be scared because, after all, we're here to defend the country.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Beijing's long argued its army is primarily defensive. Senior officers say it's decades behind the U.S., thus justifying double-digit hikes to the military budget. Many Chinese agree, like Lai Pau Mok, who's enjoying the military parade.

Mr. LAI PAU MOK: Compared with USA, there is a long way. If our army is not strong enough, the war will come up.

LIM: Yet, Beijing's new military hardware has caught U.S. defense intelligence off guard.

Unidentified Woman: China, in a show of military bravado, has staged its first test flight of a stealth fighter jet. Officials confirm...

LIM: It's upgraded far faster than expected. This could ultimately change the balance of power in the Pacific. Here's Andrei Chang from Kanwa Asian Defense.

Mr. ANDREI CHANG (Kanwa Asian Defense): Compared with Russia and USA, only China simultaneously to build aircraft carrier, strategic ballistical(ph) missile submarine, a stealth fighter, nuclear attack submarine, GPS satellite, everything - simultaneously.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Add to that growing nationalism, shown by demonstrators at an anti-Japanese protest last fall. This could mark the end of the era of hide and bide - hide your capabilities and bide your time, as advocated by earlier Chinese leaders. Beijing's shown new assertiveness, publicizing military drills and taking a stronger stance in the East and South China seas. But some believe China's military ambitions are nothing new.

Senior Colonel LIU MINGFU (Chinese Military): (Through translator) China's military dream is to build the strongest country in the world, the number one militaristic power.

LIM: Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu says China's dreamed of being number one for the past century. His book, "The China Dream," is taught in Chinese military colleges. In an interview posted on the Defense Observer magazine's website, he denies China's rise poses a threat.

Col. LIU: (Through translator) We're too weak and insecure. The U.S. carries out military drills on our doorstep and uses its aircraft carriers to flaunt its military power. U.S. containment and threat are the biggest impetus behind China's military development.

LIM: Other military voices warn the U.S. has no choice but to accept the changing world order. Here's retired Major General Xu Guangyu.

Major General XU GUANGYU (Chinese Military, Retired): (Through translator) We only want one thing: Don't harm our interests. The U.S. must accept the changing situation. As China becomes more powerful, we'll start voicing our opinions about our maritime demands and any conflicts regarding surrounding territories.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: Perhaps hoping to defuse tensions, China recently sent its military band, along with top generals, to the U.S. In public, the talk is of friendly cooperation. But many fear China's speedy military modernization speaks another language.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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