Chinese navy's transparency on new microblog more a boon than a bane
Keeping the public updated on its latest naval news makes for good propaganda and can also serve to deter potential adversaries
One of the most often-heard foreign complaints against China's military is that it lacks transparency. The West, especially the United States, has long called for the People's Liberation Army to embrace greater transparency.
But the PLA Navy last week took a small but unusual step in that direction by launching a microblog that is carrying regular news releases - the first branch of the military to do so.
The move is apparently a response to President Xi Jinping's recent call to expand the government's presence on social media platforms.
State media hailed the step into the public eye as proof of the PLA's willingness to shine a light on itself, even as a string of its top officers fall to the anti-graft drive.
China Daily said the navy's foray into social media was to publicise the armed forces and allow the public to communicate with the services.
The microblog resides on the social media channel operated by People's Daily. Internet users must have an account with the channel to access the new microblog.
The state mouthpiece said the microblog was aimed at giving the navy an avenue to reach out to the public and exchange information, especially on topics that become national interest.
The Global Times said the microblog would be used to correct inaccurate statements or rumours about the navy.
The PLA has a long way to go, though, before it matches the degree of transparency found in other nations' militaries, in such areas as budget, arms procurement, training and strategic doctrine.
There are strong motivations, both domestically and internationally, for Beijing to follow suit. For propaganda reasons, the Communist Party is eager to showcase its achievements in military modernisation.
Highlighting achievements in military advancement plays well with nationalistic domestic audiences and helps advance Xi's "Chinese dream for national renaissance". Party propagandists have often sought to tout the PLA's achievement for this very reason. Greater transparency could make it easier to pursue the vision.
Meanwhile, the party is turning to social media for its propaganda work as tightly-controlled traditional state media lose their audiences.
By the end of last year, there were about 649 million internet users on the mainland, including 249 million microbloggers, making it the world's biggest web population.
Internationally, the navy's move towards greater transparency should improve communication with its foreign partners as it takes part in an increasing number of humanitarian missions and long-distance joint drills.
It needs to provide timely information about operations to those in surrounding areas, and the microblog lets the navy keep in constant communication with the outside world.
Last week, PLA Navy chief Wu Shengli held a teleconference with the US Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert, during which they discussed China's building work in the South China Sea.
Wu assured Greenert that freedom of navigation and overflight would not be affected. Analysts said the teleconference was the first between the head of the Chinese and US navies, and indicated the US hoped to avoid accidental clashes arising from a lack of communication.
Beijing says it wants to support greater stability in the region and head off any potential military build-up. It should take further steps to promote military transparency and communication with other nations, either seen as friends or adversaries, to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding and miscalculation.
It's also another way to show off. After all, "deterrence" is what China wants. As military strategist Sun Tzu once said: "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting".