China's new model army

As with so many aspects of China today, the first thing that strikes one about the People's Liberation Army University of Science and Technology (PLAUST) in Nanjing is its sheer scale. 8,000 military students and it is only one of more than 60 similar institutions across the country.

We were invited by the PLA to film an international officer-cadet exchange week which for the first time featured British and American officer cadets from the Royal Military Academy (RMA) at Sandhurst and West Point respectively. It is also the first time the PLA has allowed western TV cameras anywhere near this close - which itself is, I suppose, a pretty strong indication that some things in China really are changing.

But step inside PLAUST and several things strike one almost immediately. First the cadets, and there are an awful lot of them, seem to do everything in units, marching and running in step. Whistles are blown and commands shouted not just on the parade ground - although there is plenty of that - but seemingly everywhere. Going to and from the canteen for meals - itself often eerily silent as talking at most mealtimes is not allowed - moving between classes and even getting up and going to bed are all highly regimented.

Predictably perhaps it is one of the first things to strike Jason Johnston and Richard Levin, both of whom just graduated as officers in the British Army Air Corps from the RMA Sandhurst. They are no strangers to barked orders and parade ground drills but neither thinks the PLAUST regime would wash back home. And it's not merely an idle observation. The amount of freedom granted to officer cadets at Sandhurst (like West Point and many of the other foreign officer cadet schools represented in Nanjing this week) and, critically, the degree to which they are expected to organise and make decisions for themselves is a theme that will echo through the week.

The other thing that immediately strikes this observer at least is how American everything looks. The uniforms, the drills, even the sports field -with the one exception that it's laid out for soccer not gridiron - could have been modeled on West Point. It's a fact not lost on the US officer cadets from West Point itself. Frank Chen - who arouses more than the usual warm and intense interest shown by the Chinese cadets in their foreign counterparts because as his name might suggest he is a Chinese American - observes that there is rather more to this apparent emulation of US military than mere coincidence. As the week's events unfold with a mixture of practical exercises and classroom sessions and debates the Chinese hosts are keen to know what their foreign guests think. Every time they get an opportunity they pull one of us away and ask "hey, was this training hard? Does this training develop leaders?"

Which again is a theme that echoes through the week and points to something genuinely significant in the way the Chinese military is changing. Mao apparently used to say, "The more people you have the more power you have" and this was one of the historic organising principles of the PLA. And indeed it is still the largest standing army on earth with more than 2.3 million people under arms. But as military spending has risen six-fold - from $20 billion in 2002 to more than $117 billion in 2012 - manpower has been cut by half. The Chinese see the US as the most powerful global military force with a fraction of the number of people but still four or five times the budget. And there's the rub. China can now afford the very best military technology but the challenge remains to train and develop people with the right skill sets and capabilities to use it effectively.

The commitment of the Chinese cadets and their teachers to seeing China better defended and able to play a role on the world stage as befits its new global status really couldn't have been clearer. PLAUST is in Nanjing, which again is redolent with significance itself as the scene of almost unimaginable brutality and Chinese military humiliation - the so-called "rape of Nanking". In 1937 the imperial Japanese Army invaded what was then China's southern capital and set about a spree of rape, torture and killing. An estimated 300,000 people - many of them women and children - lost their lives at the hands of the Japanese some of whom, according to the photographic record at least, appeared to have reveled in the slaughter with racial and ethnic overtones that add greater significance still to the Chinese collective memory of the atrocity. It is impossible not to be moved by the scene - as all the foreign cadets plainly were - but when the Chinese cadets say "never again", often with tears in their eyes, you really do believe them.

And so to the end of the week and the Jing Wu Cup - a prestigious military competition which for the first time will have foreign officer cadets participating. Superficially it's like similar competitions at Sandhurst, West Point and elsewhere - orienteering, casualty evacuation, target shooting, assault courses. But to the British officer cadets while it was similar to Sandhurst it was "not as realistic".

The casualty evacuation exercise involved securing the area and then carrying the would-be casualty 20-30 metres to the helicopter landing zone. In the Sandhurst version that would be more like 2-3 kilometers away - rather more testing. Why the difference? Recent combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that is something else the PLA does not have.

For the foreign officer cadets, the week in Nanjing offered a real insight into what for most of them would previously have appeared as a closed world - an experience they all appeared to value highly. For the Chinese officers and cadets, and they were quite open about this, it was an opportunity to learn; to calibrate and develop their officer training to match their growing technological capabilities and emerging role as a world power in light of best practice elsewhere and recent combat experience. China's new model army will need different model soldiers and officers who don't just follow orders but who can think for themselves and act independently. And for cultural and historical reasons that represents a considerable challenge.

The writer is a BBC presenter. Our World: China's New Model Army was broadcast on BBC World News on Saturday, April 26.