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As Chinese naval ships patrol off Alaska coast, its troops parade in Beijing

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Reuters/Pool

(Read caption) Chinese soldiers salute in a chorus on a stage during a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Sept. 3 to mark the 70th anniversary of victory over Japan and the end of World War II.

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Less than a month before Chinese President Xi Jinping travels to the White House for a state visit, the Pentagon said five Chinese naval vessels were plying the waters in the Bering Sea off Alaska as President Barack Obama was in Alaska’s Arctic region.

Pentagon officials said China’s Navy had every right to patrol international waters, noting the US did the same off the coast of China. But they described the move as a first, and one that showed China’s growing capability as a naval force able to project power, as well as China’s interest in Arctic natural resources, according to the Wall Street Journal

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China today marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II with an extravagant military parade in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The event, planned for months, featured 12,000 troops and a raft of new military equipment. It has been widely seen as a statement of growing military prowess and national pride.

The Chinese vessels in the Bering Sea were spotted on the third and final day of Mr. Obama’s trip to Alaska, a rarity for a US leader. The contingent included “three Chinese combat ships, a replenishment vessel and an amphibious landing ship,” the Wall Street Journal quoted Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban as saying.

We respect the freedom of all nations to operate military vessels in international waters in accordance with international law. This is the first time we have observed [People’s Liberation Army Navy] ships in the Bering Sea.

For years, China was known primarily for its “brown water” Navy that stayed within Chinese coastal areas and rivers, rather than a “blue water” oceanic navy. But that has been changing over the past decade as China has sent naval ships as far as the Mediterranean and has engaged in joint naval exercises, including with the Russian Navy in late August, as The New York Times reports.

Beijing has increased military spending and is working on an aircraft carrier. Last year, Chinese officials took Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary at the time, on a tour of the carrier, the Liaoning. Many American officials interpreted the move as an effort to project naval power, particularly in light of tensions between Beijing and its neighbors over disputed islands in the East and South China Seas.

Today’s parade in Beijing, which China billed as a “victory” celebration over Japanese forces in 1945, is only the fourth military parade since the Mao era and is the first ever not to celebrate the founding of the People's Republic. International leaders were invited, another rarity. But apart from the president of the Czech Republic, Western leaders stayed away. Their reluctance stems from China's framing of the event as stridently anti-Japanese and also its propaganda message that the defeat of Japan in 1945 was primarily achieved by Mao’s Communist forces. Historians broadly agree this is a distortion of the conflict. 

China has steadily increased military spending over the past decade, and this year spent more than $146 billion, according to the Associated Press.

Yet President Xi today announced plans to streamline the People's Liberation Army by 300,000 soldiers and to modernize the military to emphasize sea and air power. The PLA today numbers 2.3 million people, the world's largest standing army. Mr. Xi said that China was committed to creating peace and stability in Asia. 

A number of China watchers had lamented that Thursday's parade would not be a somber and universal commemoration of the advent of peace after 1945 but would be used as a loud and triumphal touting of Beijing's military might.

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British China scholar Steve Tsang, writing in the South China Morning Post this week, argues that:

China is using the parade to send a clear message to the world. It is claiming the right to maintain what it sees as the post-war order: Japan as the defeated aggressor and China as the leading - and responsible - military power in Asia.

This statement reflects China's soaring confidence and growing assertiveness under President Xi Jinping, despite evidence that economic troubles lie ahead.