China holds impressive war games attended by largest-ever contingent of observers

China on Tuesday launched major annual war games in Inner Mongolia pitting 16,000 troops against each other in a spontaneous mock battle observed by military officers from 24 nations.

Code-named "North Sword 2005," the exercise was being held at the sprawling Zhurihe training base amid dry grasslands about 310 miles northeast of Beijing.

Now in at least their fourth year, the exercises mark a major push toward integrated training involving the army, air force and other branches of the military in battlefield conditions.

The Xinhua News Agency said the exercises posed a "blue army" engaging in a lightening two-pronged attack on a "red army." The mock assault involved hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles, more than 100 artillery pieces and a helicopter squadron.

It called the exercise an "unrehearsed experimental confrontation drill" involving airborne and armored brigades with no preordained outcome.

"What the foreign observers see and hear is entirely the actual situation on the People's Liberation Army's exercise field," it said, using the formal name for China's military.

Forty foreign military personnel were on hand for the exercise, according to Xinhua, saying they represented the largest number of nations invited to observe the war games since Beijing began allowing foreign observers in 2002.

They included officers from the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and Australia, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in Beijing.

"It will help our practical exchanges, and enhance our mutual understanding, friendship and cooperation between China's military and foreign militaries in terms of military training," Qin pointed out.

China has vigorously stepped-up training of its 2.5 million-member armed forces over the past five years, focusing on Taiwan, the self-governing island Beijing claims as its own territory.

Rapid economic growth in recent years has also led to double-digit increases in budgets for the People's Liberation Army, meaning more money for weapons and training, especially integrated maneuvers.

The military has been steadily trimming its vast but poorly trained troops and has ditched Mao Zedong's strategy of "People's war," stressing rural guerrilla forces for high-tech warfare, the AP reports.

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