What Xi Jinping’s show of military strength means for China’s neighbours

Countries locked in disputes with China may see Sunday’s event as a warning, but parade, speeches have to be taken in context, experts say

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2017, 2:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2017, 3:15pm

China’s military parade on Sunday and the comments made by President Xi Jinping at the event will undoubtedly have caught the attention of its neighbours, especially those with which it has territorial disputes, analysts said.

The huge show of strength at the Zhurihe Combined Tactics Training Base in Inner Mongolia – the largest facility of its kind in Asia – was watched by military observers from India, Japan, Singapore and around the world. And Xi’s order to the assembled troops to defeat “all enemies that dare to offend” China’s national sovereignty, security and development interests will not have gone unnoticed.

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However, Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow with the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said that Xi’s comments must be given perspective.

“This flexing of muscle, in my opinion, wasn’t just intended for an external audience – either as an overt signal to perceived adversaries embroiled with China in land and maritime disputes or merely as a general deterrence against would-be aggressors,” he said.

“[While the parade was] a signal that Beijing is ready to resort to force if necessary to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial interests, [it also] was designed to instil patriotism and drive home the message of the ruling party’s leadership in governing the country as a whole,” he said.

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“No matter how Beijing tries to explain the motives behind the parade, I believe it’s inevitable that it will be interpreted in various manners – both positive and negative, or even mixed – by neighbouring countries.”

Sunday’s parade was undoubtedly a show of force. As well as 12,000 combat troops, it included a huge array of military hardware, including tanks and vehicle-mounted nuclear-capable DF-31AG missiles on the ground, and China’s first stealth aircraft the J-20, J-15 and J-16 strike fighters, and H-6K bombers in the skies above. The latter have recently been on patrol near Taiwan and Japan.

Stephen Nagy, a professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo, said Japan saw the parade as “a visible manifestation of their security concerns about China”.

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“The rapid expansion over the past 20 years, the selective acquisition of missiles and technologies that could threaten Japan’s security interests in the East China Sea and South China Sea consolidates a narrative of a regional power that is attempting to change the status quo by military means,” Nagy said.

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“In short, the political implications are that many countries will either scramble to tighten relations with the US, with each other or depend more strongly on powers such as Japan, which has invested in multilateralising strategic partnership with countries such as Vietnam, India and Australia.”

Meanwhile, Dr Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, an Indian research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore said he was puzzled by Xi’s “all enemies that dare to offend” remark and wondered if it was perhaps intended as a warning to India.

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Chinese and Indian troops have been locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball stand-off for over 40 days in a desolate region of the Himalayas that is also claimed by India’s ally Bhutan. Both sides blame each other for escalating the dispute by deploying troops in the area.

“There is no question of India feeling any threat from such a parade,” Chaturvedy said, adding that he felt it was more about a celebration of the PLA’s anniversary.

“The border stand-off has already inflamed the anti-Chinese sentiment that is always present in some sections of society. I don’t know if this parade has added any fuel to those negative sentiments.”

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Koh said that in the context of simmering land and maritime disputes in the neighbourhood, China’s huge display of military hardware is likely to spark another round of arms acquisition in the region.

“This parade will come across as sabre-rattling by some, taken as a signal that Beijing is ready to resort to force if necessary to safeguard [its] territorial and sovereignty interests,” he said.

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“The parade, which showcases the PLA’s many advanced military technologies, will also motivate others to seek to bolster their own military capabilities.”

Professor Rommel Banlaoi, director of the Centre for ­Intelligence and National Security Studies, a non-governmental ­research group in the Philippines, said Manila recognised there was a warning behind the parade.

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“But such a warning will not bother the Philippines,” he said. “Military action is not on the agenda for Manila because President Rodrigo ­Duterte prefers to remain friends with China, and use diplomatic and political negotiations to solve the two countries’ disputes.”

Additional reporting by Liu Zhen