China Power

China’s Kinder, Gentler Military Parade

Recent Features

China Power

China’s Kinder, Gentler Military Parade

China wants its military parade to showcase its peaceful intentions, not its capabilities.

China’s Kinder, Gentler Military Parade

China’s National Day military parade in 2009

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Jian Kang

China is framing a planned military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II as an international parade, rather than a Chinese one, a Defense Ministry spokesperson said Thursday. Speaking at the ministry’s regular monthly press conference, spokesperson Geng Yansheng told reporters that China would invite the militaries of countries that fought on both the eastern and western fronts of World War II to participate.

China has never before held a military parade to mark the end of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression; all previous military parades have been held on National Day, in celebration of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The unusual timing of this parade sparked interpretations (including by me) that China was seeking to display its growing military prowess to potential rivals — particularly Japan and the U.S. Even an opinion piece in the state-run People’s Daily argued that the parade was a good opportunity to “intimidate Japan.”

However, China is now attempting to rebut those interpretations by broadening the scope of its parade. “This year’s military parade is special in the sense that it is not only China that will take part in the parade, and it is actually an international event,” Geng told reporters. “[W]e are inviting the leaders of other countries to observe the military parade and we are also inviting the militaries of other countries to send their own contingents or teams to take part in and observe the military parade.” Geng added that “the purpose [of the parade] is to refresh people’s memories of the past and love for peace, pay tribute to the national martyrs, and create a better future.”

China had previously announced that it would invite foreign leaders from the major combatant countries in World War II to attend the parade, but this is first indication that foreign militaries would be invited to march as well.

A more detailed article published in Xinhua sheds more light on this year’s parade. Rather than displaying China’s latest military technologies, as the National Day parades do, this parade will have a different focus: promoting an image of China’s military forces as peacekeepers. “The world will see the PLA as important force of promoting peace,” a researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Science told Xinhua. A top PLA Navy advisor agreed, telling Xinhua that “the parade will convey to the world that China is devoted to safeguarding international order after WWII, rather challenging it.”

To successfully send that message, it’s crucial for China to get the international participation it is seeking. “[W]ith the presence of foreign guests, the parade could enjoy greater influence in the international arena,” Xinhua argued. Other than Russia (which has already agreed to participate in China’s memorial activities, just as China will participate in Russia’s), though, China has been tight-lipped about exactly which countries will be invited.

Geng admitted to some specific countries for the first time on Thursday. When asked if the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand would be invited, Geng replied, “[T]he countries you mentioned just now are within the countries that we are going to invite to take part in the military parade.”

Foreign Ministry spokespeople have been equally circumspect when pressed on whether or not Japan will be asked to participate. Spokesperson Hua Chunying came the closest to confirming the invitation in Monday’s press briefing: “I’ve just said that China has already issued invites to all relevant countries’ leaders and international organizations. Do you think that Japan has a connection to World War Two and the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, or not?”

An international military parade involving troops from all major combatant nations would obviously have a far different feel than a parade of Chinese soldiers. However, it’s unlikely all the parties invited will choose to participate. Japan, for instance, is unlikely to send representatives to a ceremony that will also air Chinese concerns about Japanese militarism and historical revisionism. After all, China’s self-defined role as upholder of the post-World War II order is often juxtaposed with supposed Japanese attempts to overthrow that order. The U.S. will likewise not wanted to be associated with a ceremony that targets it ally, and other European combatants (notably Germany) have often expressed unease at being held up as examples of historical repentance and reconciliation.

As for the deeper question of whether a military parade can ever be an instrument of peace, I invite you to check out my colleague Fran-Stefan Gady’s thoughtful piece in the New York Times.