China's military spectacle sends mixed messages
President Xi Jinping celebrates peace and promises to shrink the Chinese army – while parading with 12,000 troops and ballistic missiles.
With fighter jets roaring overhead, China's leader presided Thursday over a massive parade of tanks, missiles and troops that displayed growing military might, but also pledged to reduce the army by 300,000 troops in a bid to show that his country poses no expansionist threat.
The spectacle through the heart of Beijing commemorated Japan's World War II defeat seven decades ago, with helicopters zooming across the sky in an array forming the number 70, but the event also underlined President Xi Jinping's determination to make China the pre-eminent Asian power.
Xi kicked off the proceedings with a speech from atop iconic Tiananmen Gate, flanked by Chinese leaders past and present along with foreign dignitaries including Russian leader Vladimir Putin, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
"The experience of war makes people value peace even more," Xi said. "Regardless of the progress of events, China will never seek hegemony, China will never seek to expand and will never inflict the tragedies it suffered in the past upon others."
To underline that point, Xi said the 2.3 million-member People's Liberation Army would cut 300,000 troops. However, it will still remain the world's largest standing military and the reduction comes at a time when growing technological capabilities reduce the need for large numbers of troops.
Wearing a grey high-buttoned suit of the sort worn by past Chinese leaders, Xi then drove past the assembled troops in a Chinese-made Red Flag limousine. Standing in the sunroof with four microphones mounted in front of him, he called out "Greetings, Comrades" every few moments before the troops started their marching.
The event involved more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware and 200 aircraft of various types, representing what military officials say is the Chinese military's most cutting-edge technology.
The parade is part of commemorations packaged to bolster the ruling Communist Party's self-declared role as the driving force behind Japan's defeat 70 years ago and savior of the nation, though historians say the rival Nationalists did most of the fighting. The events also minimize the role of the U.S., Britain and others, although Beijing has attempted to stress the support it has received from a wide spectrum of foreign nations.
Most leading democracies kept high-level representatives away, reflecting concerns over the parade's anti-Japanese tone and China's recent assertive moves to press territorial claims. The U.S. sent only its ambassador to observe. In Washington, U.S. Defense Department spokesman Bill Urban said the U.S. maintains such commemorations should be about reconciliation and that a "large military display would not appear to be consistent with this theme."
Under Xi, who took power as party leader in late 2012, Beijing has sent ships to confront Japan's coast guard near disputed islands in the East China Sea, challenged Philippine outposts near the country's shores and constructed whole islands from reefs, topping them with airstrips and other military infrastructure.
China usually holds lavish military parades only every 10 years to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Communist People's Republic in 1949. By holding an additional one now, Xi ensures that he'll preside over at least two of the prestigious events during his decade-long tenure in power ending in 2023.
The parade panders to a prickly strain of nationalism in a Chinese public constantly reminded by state propaganda of China's past humiliations at the hands of foreign powers, especially Japan, which is widely despised for its perceived failure to properly atone for invading China.
While a hit at home, such sentiments heighten fears abroad about China's intended uses of its newfound power, frustrating Beijing's attempts to market itself as a responsible member of international society committed to the common good.
"In domestic terms, it's certainly a plus for Xi. But in foreign policy terms, it's controversial. It doesn't enhance China's soft power. It doesn't help China's image as a force for peace, stability and development," said Joseph Cheng, a retired academic and political analyst in Hong Kong.
In Tokyo, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said it was regrettable that there was no mention of any China-Japan reconciliation in Xi's speech.
"Rather than focusing excessively on the unfortunate history of the past, we hope that China will address the common challenges facing the international community in a future-oriented manner," Suga said.
Resistance to Japan remains a core component of the Chinese ruling party's foundational myth and is used as a key source of legitimacy in the absence of a popular mandate derived from free elections.
TV stations this week were filled with wartime dramas highlighting the role of Communist soldiers, and at a news conference in the lead-up to the parade, top party historian Gao Yongzhong said it has long been established that "the Communist Party was the linchpin in the victory."
"The Chinese Communist Party is trying to take credit for a war it didn't win and in fact in which it did very little fighting," said June Teufel Dreyer, a China historian at the University of Miami.
Foreign observers were watching the parade for any indications of new military capabilities, although there appeared to be few surprises.
China's latest model Type 99A2 tanks led the armored contingents, followed by self-propelled artillery, anti-aircraft systems and a variety of short, intermediate and long-range missiles. Unmanned aerial vehicles were loaded aboard trucks, while aircraft including China's domestically developed J-10 fighters and H6 bombers flew overhead streaming trails of colored smoke.
Of special interest was the appearance of the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, potentially capable of sinking a U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft carrier in a single strike. Although questions remain over its reliability on the battlefield, the weapon has stirred concerns in the Pentagon about the vulnerability of U.S. military assets in the case of an attack on Japan, Taiwan or American bases in Asia.
"This will terribly complicate Washington's ability to fulfill defense guarantees to its major Asian allies and implicit guarantees made to Taiwan," said Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the Washington think tank International Assessment and Strategy Center.
The parade took place under blues skies and heavy security, with the route along central Chang'an Avenue closed to the public. Beijing residents greeted the event with a mix of pride and annoyance at the accompanying inconvenience.
"Military parades are fine, but we're losing business," said a clerk at a convenience store located east of Tiananmen Square that had been forced to close on Wednesday afternoon.
"It was really exciting," said street vendor Huang Mei. "But I don't think it was any big deal. It didn't really have much to do with us regular people."
Associated Press writers Louise Watt in Beijing and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.
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