As Xi Jinping presides over thousands of goose-stepping troops marching down Beijing’s Changan Avenue -- or “Eternal Peace Street” -- on Thursday, the Chinese president will also proclaim his commitment to the world’s peaceful development.
It’s a message China’s neighbors may find hard to swallow as it flexes its military muscle from the East China Sea to the Indian Ocean. The parade marking the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end -- or “Victory of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War" -- will put on display much of what has frayed nerves throughout the region.
The first-of-its-kind victory celebration will show the world the military might Xi has put at the center of his Chinese Dream for national rejuvenation. The pageant will feature 12,000 soldiers, almost 200 of China’s latest aircraft and mobile ballistic missile launchers capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the continental U.S.
“There is a fairly crude signal to the international community that China is a modern power not to be trifled with,” said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University in Canberra. “But this doesn’t sit well with the anxiety that already exists in the region.”
The parade offers Xi the first chance since taking power in 2012 to publicly present himself as China’s commander-in-chief. It’ll also give him a chance to distract attention from a slowing economy, a stock-market rout and the warehouse explosions in nearby Tianjin that killed at least 150 earlier this month.
Xi heads a fighting force that boasts the world’s second-largest defense budget after more than doubling spending over the past decade. That expansion -- especially China’s focus on developing its navy -- has alarmed neighbors and fueled the region’s biggest military buildup in decades.
The Philippines and Vietnam -- spooked by China’s island-reclamation program in the disputed South China Sea -- are both increasing defense spending. India plans to spend at least $61 billion expanding its navy, eyeing Chinese submarine patrols in the Indian Ocean. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month passed security bills that would let the constitutionally pacifist country come to the military aid of the U.S. or other countries.
Geopolitical rivalries have played out on Xi’s guest list. Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who both have territorial disputes with China, will skip the event. Taiwan, which China regards as a rogue province, has asked its veterans to turn down the invitation to attend.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who hosted Xi at his own WWII victory parade in May, will be the only state leader representing China’s wartime allies, with U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande staying home.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye, a key American ally, will attend, as she works to draw China further away from North Korea and also arrange a potential three-way summit with Abe.
For Xi, perceptions about the parade abroad are less important than what the event tells Chinese citizens about the strength of their country -- and its leader.
“It’s a way to further consolidate power,” Hu Xingdou, a professor of political economy at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “Internally, it’s meant to showcase solidarity and strength under his leadership. Externally, Xi wants to use the parade as a statement on China’s rising political profile on the global stage.”
The “I’m-in-control” message won’t be wasted on the generals of the People’s Liberation Army and the 2.3 million personnel they command. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has ensnared dozens of past and present top brass, including Guo Boxiong, the PLA’s former top uniformed officer.
While Mao Zedong oversaw several military parades, Chinese leaders have in recent years restricted such events to 10-year anniversaries of the country’s founding in 1949. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, hosted the last one in 2009.
The WWII anniversary, which was announced after a diplomatic flare up with Japan over control of uninhabited East China Sea islands, gave Xi an occasion to hold his own parade four years early. The Communist Party has long chafed at what it sees as a lack of appreciation for China’s, as well as its own, contribution to defeating the Japanese.
Like when hosting the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Communist Party has gone to great lengths to ensure the parade goes perfectly. Authorities restarted stock support to prevent a market rout from distracting from the event, according to people familiar with the matter. They’ve ordered factories to close to clear Beijing’s notorious air pollution.
Such a display of strength may help Xi fan national pride as the economy -- a key source of party’s support -- shows signs of weakness, said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“He has been stoking the flames of nationalism since day one,” said Lam, author of “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping.” “For every general secretary, you need a military parade to really demonstrate you are the supremo, the supreme leader.”
Xi’s challenge will be asserting his power while reassuring the world of his commitment to China’s peaceful rise. While in Paris in last year, he quoted Napoleon’s remark that China was a sleeping lion that would one day wake and shake the world.
“The lion has woken up,” Xi said. “But it is peaceful, pleasant and civilized.”