On Thursday, 12,000 Chinese troops and 500 military vehicles will parade through Beijing, with fighter jets and attack helicopters flying overhead. Ending at Tiananmen Square, the display will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. It comes as China's leadership grapples with numerous challenges, both foreign and domestic. Managing these issues represents an existentially significant test for President Xi Jinping and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The slowdown of the Chinese economy, which has shown robust growth over recent decades, is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. Its vulnerable stock exchanges and declining manufacturing output have sent shockwaves throughout international markets, and the Chinese government's questionable response raises a host of concerns. The popular legitimacy of the CCP's leadership depends on continuing growth, and while its rapid development was expected to taper somewhat as it adjusts from a reliance on exports to a new economic model, this transition must be navigated smoothly by Party leadership. Xi, who is also general secretary of the CCP Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission — that is, not just head of China's government but also its top political and military official — has spent his first years in office eliminating enemies and consolidating power. At this point, credit for success or blame for failure will be his alone.
The Chinese government is also confronting massive climate change and pollution problems, ongoing territorial disputes with its neighbors, and internal challenges like the recent explosion in Tianjin (and subsequent blasts) that suggest deeper systemic troubles. As Thursday's spectacle attracts the world's attention, the increased scrutiny might have the effect of highlighting the country's various difficulties, though the point is to affirm its status as a major world power.
"The parade is designed to reinforce a meta-message consistent with a determined Chinese narrative of historical mistreatment (a century and a half of humiliation), inexorable rise (the Chinese Dream), and peaceful intentions (win-win development and cooperation)," Dr. Patrick Cronin, senior advisor and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told VICE News.
Xi, who will visit the US later this month, will deliver a speech before the parade to honor the occasion. Along with 12,000 members of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), 1,000 troops from military contingents from 17 countries are expected to join, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia. Some 850,000 volunteers wearing red armbands will line the sidewalks of the route. Leaders from 30 nations, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, are expected to attend, as well as representatives from 49 nations. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will also be there.
Who will not? That's the bigger story. There will be no current heads of state from numerous countries that were allied with China during World War II, such as the United States, Britain, and France. These nations have declined to embrace the public military display out of concern that it could heighten regional tensions.
"We have shared with our Chinese counterparts our desire to see WWII commemorative events highlight the theme of reconciliation," Pentagon spokesperson Commander William Burwell told VICE News. "A large military display would not appear to be consistent with this theme."
The optics of certain elements of the parade also read poorly to outside observers.
"Of course, if nations want to commemorate the war, they are welcome to do so in whatever way they feel appropriate. But when you intentionally design your activities as a global spectacle, it would be wise to think about the messages you are sending," Brian Harding, director for East and Southeast Asia at the Center for American Progress, told VICE News. "It's as if the Chinese government has so thoroughly purged memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre that they forgot tanks rolling through Tiananmen Square might not be a positive image for much of the world."
Watch the VICE News documentary Troops and Tanks in Moscow: Russia's Victory Day:
Japan, whose defeat is being celebrated, has also declined to attend Thursday's ceremonies. Its reasoning is straight-forward: the parade is officially titled "Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the Victory of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggressions and the World Anti-Fascist War." The legacy of World War II is an issue with which East Asia continues to wrestle, particularly Japan, China, and South Korea. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's address last month on the 70thanniversary of his nation's World War II surrender did not silence voices in Beijing and Seoul who demand more in the way of an acknowledgment and apology from Tokyo for its wartime abuses.
In terms of military hardware, rehearsals indicate that the world will get a look at two of China's most advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles: the DF-21D, a so-called "carrier killer" because of its ability to target moving sea vessels from long-range, land-based mobile launchers; and the DF-41, one of the longest-range missiles in the world, with the ability to hit targets 12,000 to 15,000km away. Fifth generation fighters such as China's J-15, a Chinese equivalent to America's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will likely fly overhead, along with sophisticated attack helicopters such as the Z-19, a counterpart to the Boeing AH-64E Apache.
Less conspicuously, planning for the parade will receive an assist from China's Beidou satellite system, whose nearly 20 satellites will supervise and coordinate the procession using precision positioning technology. China is only the fourth spacefaring power — after the US, Russia, and the European Space Agency — to develop an independent satellite navigation and positioning system.
These advanced systems illustrate how China is becoming the dominant regional military power, said Cronin, while communicating to its neighbors that they "should bandwagon with Beijing rather than seek to preserve full sovereignty through modernization, intra-Asian security cooperation, and alignment with the only real counterweight, the United States."
It's unclear whether they will heed that message. As China's military assets roll by and fly overhead, those countries will certainly be thinking about their own acquisitions. Taking into account China's massive land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, neighboring claimants like Vietnam are considering purchases such as maritime patrol craft, unarmed drones, and jet fighters. Though none of the capabilities shown Thursday should truly surprise, the spectacle of advanced weaponry is an unmistakable show of strength.
Military trainspotters around the world will carefully observe the weapons systems on display, but some big changes aren't going to be paraded through the streets. The government is expected to announce major reforms of the entire defense establishment following the parade, solidifying a transition from a ground-based, army-focused force to one that seeks to emphasize power projection through air and naval assets.These changes, which have been characterized as a "sweeping overhaul," include adopting a joint command structure, further consolidating China's military regions, streamlining the PLA officer corps, and other advancements befitting a modern global power.
Chinese officials have deflected suggestions that the exhibition is an expression of antipathy for Japan or an unseemly projection of its power, saying that these are misinterpretations of the event.
As Zhang Ming, vice minister of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a press conference last month, the point is to "remember history, cherish the memory of China's revolutionary martyrs, uphold peace and create the future."
"If someone says this is flexing anything," he remarked, "it is a flexing of the spirit of peace by the Chinese people."