With its unprecedented military parade, China is reminding Asia and the world of war, rather than peace

Steve Tsang says China's military parade marking victory over Japan sends the wrong message to the region

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2015, 5:26pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2015, 5:26pm

Whenever the Chinese Communist Party departs from routine protocol, it is usually highly significant. Its military parade in Beijing on Thursday, which marks 70 years since the defeat of Japan in the second world war, is no exception.

It is only China's fourth military parade since the Mao era; it is the first time it has held a parade that does not commemorate the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949; it is the first such parade where the world's heads of state are invited.

It is a bold decision. It is also a major error of judgment. To openly show off its military might in this way will harm rather than aid China's ambitions to rally support in Asia for its claim to regional leadership and its efforts to marginalise Japan and reduce American influence in the region.

China's readiness to assert itself militarily is unnerving its neighbours. Such an overt display of military power clashes with the notion of China's "peaceful rise". It also signals the definitive departure from Deng Xiaoping's strategy of downplaying its military capabilities - China is set to showcase its most advanced weaponry, something it has refrained from doing in previous parades.

Those outside China will understandably ask: what will this military strength be used for? After all, the boy in the playground with the biggest muscles should have no need to flaunt them. As one of the Chinese government's own favourite sayings goes: "Listen to other's words; watch their deeds." The rest of the world is watching China's deeds.

The boy in the playground with the biggest muscles should have no need to flaunt them

The words the Communist Party is using are also crucial here. China is not marking an Allied victory and the end of the war in Asia. It is specifically celebrating "the 70th anniversary of China's victory in the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression". The party is affirming its historical narrative that China defeated the Japanese under the party's leadership.

The party's legitimacy rests on popular acceptance of this storyline. In reality, China was one of several countries that fought Imperial Japan and the Nationalists, under Chiang Kai-shek, did the bulk of the fighting in China. The 30 heads of states attending the parade are in effect validating the Communist Party's propaganda, another key reason why many others are staying away.

China is using the parade to send a clear message to the world. It is claiming the right to maintain what it sees as the post-war order: Japan as the defeated aggressor and China as the leading - and responsible - military power in Asia.

This statement reflects China's soaring confidence and growing assertiveness under President Xi Jinping , despite evidence that economic troubles lie ahead. Every Chinese leader has his own slogan. Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao called for the creation of a "harmonious society". Xi, who came to power in 2013, champions the "China Dream", a philosophy that centres on national rejuvenation under a strong military. That's quite a semantic shift in two years.

Most of East Asia was attacked by Japan in the second world war. The fact that many of the region's states are refusing to send top-level representatives to Beijing underlines their unease at China's rise.

The scale of this unease is magnified when you consider the unpopularity of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe across Asia. China, though, is squandering the opportunity to amass regional support that this negative sentiment towards Abe presents.

The timing of the parade is problematic for China. Although it was planned months ago, it arrives at a time when economic concerns are growing. On one hand, the parade will strengthen nationalist sentiment among many Chinese. But, on the other, many will view it as an unnecessary distraction and a sign that the Chinese government is not taking the people's anxiety over the state of the economy seriously enough.

The international guest list for the event is a revealing window into China's relations with the rest of the world - and further evidence that the Communist Party has alienated most leading powers by the way it has framed the event. The majority of countries that are sending high-level representatives - in particular those that are sending troops to participate in the parade, such as Mexico, Pakistan, Venezuela and states from Eastern Europe - did not fight Japan in the second world war. They are seizing the opportunity to show China their political support in return for a furthering of economic ties.

Of the major Western powers, the United States is sending its ambassador to China, Max Baucus - the lowest ranking official it could get away with without delivering a deeply embarrassing snub to China. Britain is sending lawmaker Kenneth Clarke, who has retired from ministerial duties. And while China will make some noise domestically about the attendance of former British prime minister Tony Blair, it must know that he carries little weight in current UK policy circles.

Even news of the decision to attend by South Korea's president Park Geun-hye fails to endorse China's approach. A long-term victim of Japanese aggression in the past, South Korea has more reason than any other country to stand by China against Japan. Yet Park was notably hesitant in accepting the invitation.

The tone of the commemoration would have been different if China had opted to organise a "people's parade" to mark the end of the war in Asia, instead of a military one to celebrate its victory over Japan - and a greater number of foreign dignitaries may have been prepared to attend.

As it is, the high-profile absentees underline just how far the Communist Party and Xi have to travel to realise the "China Dream", which surely depends on winning the trust of its neighbours.

Professor Steve Tsang is senior fellow at the China Policy Institute and head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham, UK