Yesterday, China held a parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of World War II, and swore high and low that it wasn't flexing its military muscles in the process. Zhang Ming, vice minister of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a press conference last month that "if someone says this is flexing anything, it is a flexing of the spirit of peace by the Chinese people."
These sentiments made the recent release of a fairly polished CG video, almost six minutes in length and produced by an unidentified entity, showing how totally and comprehensively they'd kick US ass in a shooting war, seem a bit puzzling. Popular perception of the video outside of China is of a full-blown Sino-Smackdown, but there's actually more to it than meets the eye.
But first, a round of applause for another demonstration of the Chinese Communist Party's supreme knack for snappy nomenclature on the parade, which has been officially dubbed "The 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." If you're curious, that title does, in fact, overshoot the Twitter character limit.
Part of what makes the parade, and by extension the video, a bit of a surprise to the general public in the US is the fact that the parade itself was largely seen as a chance to watch the Chinese march around with a whole lot of military gear, including the occasional nuclear missile, to mark the end to a theater of conflict bookended — at least for Americans — by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the start and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the finish.
But that actually provides a useful point of departure for the video, which starts off the narrative with a devastating surprise attack against a number of Chinese bases, according to Dean Cheng, senior research fellow with the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, who noted that the bases are specifically described defense bases located along the coast.
"This leads to a firm decision to retaliate," Cheng told VICE News. "This is consistent with the (popular version) of 'Active Defense,' which is the official Chinese 'strategy,' where China would retain the operational/tactical initiative, but would never strike first."
Don't confuse the fact that China is flexing its big sexy peace muscles with the idea that they won't utterly kick your ass if you try a Pearl Harbor sucker punch. In essence, it's a deterrence message.
And the Pearl Harbor warning is an interesting one, because at least according to some in the China-watching community, the island that the Chinese attack and invade in the video isn't Taiwan, but rather Okinawa — a Japanese island home to a large US military presence.
The video itself never specifies a particular enemy, referring only to "a certain foreign alliance," according to Cheng. But it does show F-22 fighters getting pummeled by rockets on the runway. The US is the only country that operates those jets. And then it shows a variety of weapons blowing up Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Again, very much US gear.
Fair enough. You size for the biggest likely opponent and work from there, and it's no surprise to anyone that the US and Chinese militaries are the biggest fish in that Pacific pond. It's not super weird or odd that the Chinese might plan to hold their own against their biggest potential opponent.
Beyond the broad messaging, there are some smaller signs that China isn't wildly different from the US in its thinking on conflict. "It would seem that the new national highway system in China, like our own, is intended to allow for the rapid deployment of military forces," Cheng told VICE News. It does raise the question of the extent to which military requirements — like how much weight a bridge can carry — have been folded into China's big infrastructure boom over the last several decades.
The similarities go beyond the concrete, and in some ways stretch to the stylistic. The opening scene of the video has been cribbed from the opening of the video game Call of Duty. And the close-formation flying and spitting-distance submarine combat adheres to the same stylistic conventions that are canon in Hollywood war flicks like Top Gun and The Hunt for Red October.
In general, the broader point of the video is that China can not only go toe-to-toe with the current title champion, the US, but that it can win and win decisively.
"But it is interesting and striking that China is presumed to rule all domains of warfare, from underwater to the ground to the air. But notice no mention of space combat?" Cheng explained. The hesitation to throw that into the mix may have been a sharp political call, since space warfare is a touchy topic in general, and especially for the Chinese, since their 2007 anti-satellite weapons test created an enormous cloud of deadly space debris and an even larger flurry of international condemnation.
But beneath the message that China isn't going to take crap from anyone, and can hold its own against any likely opponent, is an even deeper and more interesting message. While the parade (and therefore this video) is being discussed as relevant to the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, it's the 120th anniversary of the end of the first Sino-Japanese war. And the Chinese got their asses handed to them that time around.
"There is an implicit message in this video, the parade, and all the other Chinese actions, of: 'We will never allow ourselves to be so humiliated again,'" Cheng said. And that's not just a matter of technological parity. In the First Sino-Japanese War, "the Northern Fleet (Beiyang fleet) at the time was actually technologically comparable to the Japanese navy — but its training, recruitment, and equipping/logistical support were horrendous."
So, the underlying message to the US might be along the lines that they won't throw the first punch, but they'll sure as hell make sure they throw the last punch. But the message within China might be tied to the idea that the Chinese military will never be so foolish as to fall into the trap of imagining that having equivalent weapons technology alone, by itself, is enough to guarantee there will never be another complete and abject humiliation.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan