China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) is modernizing. It has acquired an aircraft carrier, developed at least one unmanned aerial vehicle, and a stealth fighter, and is trying its hand at public relations.

During a trip to China by French defense journalists in September, Gen. Chen Zhou, author of China's defense white paper published in March, said with some humor, “We are learning military transparency but can't do it overnight, and it does have limits as we cannot put state security in peril.” Hence, there was no mention of Taiwan, details of the aircraft carrier, missiles or the nation's space program during the tour.

Ten members of the French association of defense journalists, which led the initiative to visit the PLA, made the trip. The group visited the 24th airborne division near Beijing and the Shanghai naval base, and traveled via high-speed rail to the 179th mechanized infantry brigade and the military academy in Nanjing.

A recurring theme of the PLA hosts was the technology gap between China and the West. Chen claimed the PLA “has a 25-30-year technology gap. We haven't even completed the mechanization process and now we have to move into the digital age. Digitalization [of military equipment] is our biggest technological challenge.”

Gen. Qian Lihua, director of the defense ministry's foreign affairs bureau, said “our technological means and talents lag far behind those of Western nations. We are still in the primary phase of digitalization.” He added that “we would like the countries of the European Union to sell us high technology.”

For now, this seems unlikely, owing to an embargo imposed by the EU in 1989 after China's bloody crackdown on protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Last December the EU's foreign relations chief, Catherine Ashton, wrote in a strategy paper on China that the embargo is “a major impediment” to better relations. Not surprisingly, Qian agreed that “if the embargo were lifted it would help cooperation between China and the EU.”

Before viewing a static display of the Chengdu J-10 fighter, Brig. Gen. Yan Feng, commander of the 24th airborne, said that over the next decade he would like aircraft “with the capacity to do what the pilot wants.” He may have been referencing the J-10, implying that it has fewer multirole capabilities than claimed.

At the eastern fleet base in Ningbo, south of Shanghai, Capt. Hu Wei Hua said the PLA Navy's “principal strength is our spirit and our greatest weakness is technology and performance. We must raise our technological level to close the gap with France, the U.K. and above all the U.S.”

He believes China is “behind by almost a generation in aircraft” and said it “will take time” for the navy to catch up with other major navies. “As an important country and member of the United Nations Security Council, we must play our role,” he remarked, implying that with China's growing economic power it will not remain the only permanent member of the Security Council without an operational aircraft carrier.

The modesty of officials regarding China's technological capabilities is not matched by China's defense white paper, which notes that “thanks to important technological breakthroughs . . . new strategic sectors and high-technology military industries have been developed [by China] in [numerous areas],” among them “aviation, electronics, IT [and] specialized technical equipment . . . Moreover, “the use and development of nuclear energy and aerospace technology for peaceful ends has been accentuated.”

Western diplomats in China told DTI that the Chinese are more likely 5-10 years behind the West technologically, though this is difficult to ascertain. They also think some of the concerns in the Pentagon's 2011 report to Congress on military and security developments in China are alarmist, particularly concerning technology.

China's official 2010 military budget is 532.1 billion yuan ($83.3 billion), a 7.5% rise from 2009 and 1.4% of GDP. European observers cannot verify these figures. The increase alarmed Pentagon officials, but according to the Chinese white paper, 34.04% of the budget is to improve living conditions for soldiers, 33.73% is for training and equipment maintenance, and 32.23% for procurement. European diplomats confirm that basic pay rose 40% for non-commissioned officers this year and 20% for officers.