This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Countries around the world will commemorate the event with their own celebrations – including a May ceremony in Russia that is expected to be attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping and even North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. This week, China announced its own plans to commemorate the end of the war with a “grand military parade.”
China typically holds a major military parade on every tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. The last parade came in 2009 under then-President Hu Jintao and incorporated 52 Chinese-made weapons systems, including cruise missiles, drones, and (flying overhead) fighter jets. The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II provides Xi a handy excuse to hold his own military parade without waiting another four years for the 70th anniversary of the PRC to roll around.
Back in 2009, an official from the National Day Military Parade Joint Command attempted to reassure observers that the public display of China’s military might was not meant to intimidate anyone. “A country’s military ability is not a threat to anyone; what is important is its military policy,” he insisted. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying echoed this stance when asked about the 2015 military parade in Tuesday’s press conference. “By hosting commemorative events with other counties, China is to awaken each and every virtuous man’s desire for and commitment to peace, to refresh people’s memory of the history and love for peace, and to showcase China’s staunch position of upholding the victory of WWII and the post-war international order, and safeguarding world peace,” Hua said.
One Chinese media report, however, is offering a different explanation. An online piece from People’s Daily attempts to unravel the political significance of China for the first time holding a military parade not linked to the anniversary of the PRC founding. The very first reason? “To display China’s military power.” Military might is a crucial aspect of national strength, the piece explains, the necessary backing for both political chess matches and economic competition. Now that China has become a major player in the world’s geopolitical scene, it’s time for China to display its military power.
The second reason given by the People’s Daily piece is the one receiving all the attention: “to intimidate Japan.” The piece explains, “In recent years, backed by the U.S. return to Asia strategy for containing China, Japan’s China policy has been more and more unrestrained… Barring an unexpected occurrence, Japan is going to take further steps toward amending its pacifist constitution and pushing toward national normalization.” The only way to stop this “insane attempt,” the piece argues, is for China to show its own military might and demonstrate its determination not to allow Japan to change the post-war order.
To place this analysis in context, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent comments about the way he will frame his statement on the war have caused consternation in China. As the Asahi Shimbun reported Monday, Abe might omit certain expressions used in past apologies by former prime ministers Tomiichi Murayama and Junichiro Koizumi, focusing instead on Japan’s “intentions for the future, such as what contribution Japan will make for the globe and what sort of world it will help to create.” China immediately reacted with dismay; Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said China would be paying close attention to see if Japan is “trying to deny or water down that part of history.”
But as much as China’s military parade might be a message to Japan, warning against historical revisionism, it’s aimed even more at the U.S. Even the People’s Daily piece gave a nod to this by repeating a commonly held view in China – that Japan is only causing problems because the U.S. seeks to use it to “contain” China. The parade is meant to convey the message that China has arrived militarily on the world stage. It now has the clout to back up its economic and political interests with force (as, it must be noted, a last resort).
Further adding geopolitical spice to the parade, Chinese media report that Russian President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to attend the parade. According to Chinese media reports, this will be the first time a foreign leader has ever attended such a military parade and the accompanying troop review ceremony. Just as U.S. President Barack Obama spent Monday watching a display of Indian military might, Putin will sit at Xi’s side to watch the Chinese military strut its stuff. Talk about sending a geopolitical message.