Chinese troops are rehearsing for a major parade in September where the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is expected to unveil new homegrown weapons in the first of a series of public displays of military might planned during President Xi Jinping's tenure, sources said.
China will hold up to four PLA parades in the coming years in the face of what Beijing sees as a more assertive Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants to ease the fetters imposed on Tokyo's defense policy by a post-war, pacifist constitution.
The parades are also intended to show that Xi has full control over the armed forces amid a sweeping crackdown on military graft that has targeted top generals and caused some disquiet in the ranks, a source close to the Chinese leadership and a source with ties to the military told Reuters.
As military chief, Xi will review the parades and be saluted by PLA commanders during events expected to be broadcast nationwide.
"Military parades will be the 'new normal' during Xi's (two 5-year) terms," the source with leadership ties said, referring to the phrase "xin changtai" coined by Xi to temper economic growth expectations in China.
The frequency of the parades would be a break from recent tradition. Xi's predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, only held a military parade in 1999 and 2009 respectively to mark the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.
The military parade to be held on Sept. 3 in Beijing would mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two. It would be Xi's first since he took over as Communist Party and military chief in late 2012 and state president in early 2013.
Troops were already drilling in secret on the outskirts of Beijing for the event, said the sources, who requested anonymity to avoid repercussions for speaking to foreign media.
The sources had no details on the new weapons that would be displayed, but China has an ambitious high-tech development program, including anti-satellite and anti-aircraft carrier missiles as well as stealth fighter jets.
Lieutenant-General Song Puxuan, former president of the Chinese National Defense University and who was appointed commander of the Beijing Military Region in January, would lead the September parade, the source with leadership ties said.
Graft in cross-hairs
China would also hold a military parade on Oct. 1, 2019 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic and was contemplating two more to mark the 90th anniversary of the PLA on Aug. 1, 2017 and the 100th anniversary of the party on July 1, 2021, the sources said.
"Military parades are to demonstrate Xi is in control over the military and boost morale," said the source with ties to the PLA.
Xi is waging the boldest war on corruption in China in decades, especially in the military, a risky move because it has hurt morale and could spiral out of control, undermining his and the party's grip on power, experts have said.
The most senior military figure under investigation is General Xu Caihou, who retired as vice chairman of the state Central Military Commission in 2013. That probe has focused on the widespread selling of military promotions.
Serving and retired Chinese military officers have said graft in the PLA is so pervasive it could undermine China's ability to wage war.
Remembering the past
Military parades are also aimed at sending a message to neighbor Japan and to strengthen national patriotism, the two sources said.
China and Japan have long sparred over their past. China consistently reminds its people of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre in which it says Japanese troops killed 300,000 people in its then capital. A postwar Allied tribunal put the death toll at 142,000, but some conservative Japanese politicians and academics deny the massacre took place.
The world's second and third largest economies have also been at loggerheads over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Abe has a stated goal of a stronger security profile for Japan that includes passing a law in 2015 to reinterpret the country's pacifist constitution.
This would allow Japan to come to the aid of an ally and pave the way for its troops to fight overseas for the first time since World War Two.
But it is China's growing assertiveness and the lack of transparency about the ambitions of the world's biggest armed forces that has mostly worried countries in the region. Some of China's actions in the disputed South China Sea have also drawn criticism from Washington.