Why should the world fear a powerful Xi Jinping?
Tom Plate says critics of Xi Jinping's apparent moves to strengthen his rule should also see the positives
As Hongkongers can certainly testify, political parades in the public square or citizen protests occupying a thoroughfare can hide as much as they reveal. Last week, Beijing put together for all the world to see a titanic military show, the first such lavish one in years, designed to knock people's eyes out - perhaps especially on the mainland. Yet just before that, in central Tokyo, worried citizens ginned up a vastly smaller but still potent peace appeal that caught the eye of a world more familiar with Japan's former militarism than widespread pacifism.
The Beijing celebration was an official government showing; the Tokyo protest was anything but. Both events raise pressing questions for East Asia and the West.
Japan, once Asia's leading military power, held the region in fear until the cataclysmic end of the second world war. Its abject surrender was what the Beijing display was cheering; but the Japanese need no help from anyone to recall that the end of their military era was punctuated with the atomic levelling of two cities.
Surely the collective conscience of the Japanese people (though not of insensitive, posturing politicians) can honestly say to the world: what is war for? The Abe government's aim to remilitarise by eviscerating its anti-war constitution strikes many Japanese as brutish arrogance, if not pathetic psychological denial.
Chinese who claim or brag they loathe all Japanese may not fully appreciate that their closest archipelago neighbour in fact looks, in an anti-war respect, to be further along the evolutionary tunnel than China is. "War is the sword of Damocles that still hangs over the head of mankind," said President Xi Jinping at the parade. He hit the nail on the head. The question now is whether his government will steer a wise course that makes the militarism of the Abe government look primitive and retro, or goad Japan into tragic but seemingly justifiable action.
Indisputably, China was well within its rights to organise a showboat parade on the 70th anniversary of the war's end. After all, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon himself, no noted warmonger, took his spot on the reviewing stand; and that was a good decision. But no high-ranking US official from Washington was to be found; and that was a bad decision.
What's more, let me argue that a truly far-thinking Japanese prime minister would be up there, too. At some point, East Asia needs to come together, if it's not to come apart.
What is Beijing's game? On the exact occasion of President Barack Obama's well-publicised environmental fact-finding visit to Alaska, five Chinese navy ships were bobbing off that state's coast. Yes, the naval quintet was totally within its rights to be in international waters; and we all know the US Pacific Command floats its own boats around China. But this ill-timed if harmless exercise invited ominous speculation. The Pentagon announced that Chinese ships had never been spotted in the Bering Sea before; others asserted China was "getting tougher in maritime space", as one US analyst put it.
Xi's seemingly dramatic announcement of a 13 per cent cutback in People's Liberation Army manpower did not elicit swoons of gratitude in the US. One senior policy insider, who nonetheless urges efforts to tone down tensions with Beijing, said: "His cuts suggest only a greater and continuing emphasis on PLA modernisation, with a focus on advanced technology, including anti-access, area-denial and other dimensions of security. These are more threatening and hazardous for the US than the 300,000 manpower cut."
Maybe so, but Xi's cut was not slight, and underscored his determined campaign to plant the military snugly under the umbrella of the Communist Party.
Predictably, the West is sounding the alarm that Xi may turn into a Stalin. But it would be simplistic to assume that a stronger Xi is automatically a bad thing. A seamlessly unified Beijing command would have the ability to unplug hot-headed sectors of the military spoiling for a good dust-up with the US. A stronger Xi can take a broader national-interest view in a serious crisis and communicate authoritatively to Washington - not to mention to the PLA - a decision to negotiate, not escalate.
Keeping the military under control during a crisis is not always the easiest part of a leader's job, as revealed in president John F. Kennedy's struggle to contain the feral testosterone of his Joint Chiefs of Staff during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Today, it may be that it is China that has the control-of-escalation problem, not Washington.
So if the main point of the hardware show in Tiananmen Square was to spotlight Xi as a man not to mess with, don't assume the worst. As defence analyst Michael Swaine, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and one of the most prominent American analysts of Chinese security issues, has put it: "During the Mao and Deng eras, the power and prestige of the paramount leader were generally sufficient to permit him to compromise on principle when necessary without admitting he was doing so."
The historic example, of course, was when Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai executed that famous turn to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as if suddenly among dear friends. It is hard to imagine a Politburo committee coming to a timely decision of that magnitude and imagination. So perhaps we need to observe Xi with more careful attentiveness - and less ideology. We might even struggle to imagine that he understands his China at least as well as we do.
Columnist Tom Plate, author of the Giants of Asia series and other books on Asia and China, is Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles