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#4908, 7 September 2015

Looking East

China: ‘Peaceful’ Display of Military Might
Wasbir Hussain
Executive Director, CDPS, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS

On 3 September 2015, China displayed its massive military might in a parade unseen in recent years. It is for the first time since 1949 that so many senior military officers of the rank of generals had actually taken part in such a parade. Wearing a black Mao suit, Chinese President Xi Jinping kicked off the spectacular Stalinist-style parade in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, with a 10-minute, carefully worded, opening address saying, “We (Chinese) love peace.” As if to allay the fears of friends and foes alike, Xi added, “No matter how much stronger it may become, China will never push for hegemony or expansion.”

He may have used the word “peace” 17 times in that brief address, under possibly scientifically managed cloud-free blue skies, but the parade itself was organised to demonstrate China’s military muscle to the world. And, of course, coming in the wake of the tsunami in the Chinese stock market and Beijing’s questionable handling of the stock market meltdown, the parade is also seen as an attempt to project China as a strong political and economic power that has the ability to withstand pulls and pressures.

No one missed the point that the parade had a strong domestic motive as well because both China’s neighbours and the world at large are in any case aware of the lethality of Beijing’s military hardware, developed and upgraded over the years. It certainly was President Xi’s move to boost his power and position at home. Among the first things Xi did after assuming office in 2012 was to take control of the Central Military Commission (CMC) – by far the key instrument to control the country’s military establishment, one that has a 2.3 million-strong active on-duty army. The crackdown against corruption in the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is something no predecessor of Xi had ever tried. The investigations charged several generals, including the two highest-ranking officers under his predecessor—Xu Caihou (since dead) and Guo Boxiong, of corruption. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to assume President Xi is moving towards establishing himself with an image of being the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. What better way in trying to move closer to this objective than holding the massive parade that is expected to further consolidate his grip over the army?

Ostensibly, the event was organised to mark ‘Victory Day’, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the successful People’s War of Resistance against Japanese aggression or occupation (1937-45). But it was the first time such a huge military parade was held for reasons other than celebrating the CPC’s rule or ‘achievements’. Therefore, one can actually ask whether China really wants to pursue an open strategy to deter Japan. The answer perhaps is yes because President Xi, who has already been demonstrating his aggressiveness and is unapologetic about China’s big power ambitions, could be trying to reinvigorate the nationalist fervour among his countrymen by an open demonstration of anti-Japan sentiments. Could Xi be actually trying to change the Asian order and make things revolve around China, and thereby goad everyone to ignore rising powers or rising economies like India? Such a possibility cannot be ruled out.

As many as 30 heads of state and/or governments were in attendance at the reviewing stand with President Xi during the parade; but no significant leader from any democracy, including India, were present. India’s Modi government deputed Minister of State for External Affairs, Gen. (Retd.) VK Singh, whose other identity is that he is a former chief of the Indian army. Other than showing the minimum courtesy, India did nothing to antagonise Japan. Beijing may be worried about an India-Japan-US axis, but New Delhi has actually gone out of its way to signal that it was keen to improve ties with Japan and China at the same time, while consolidating relations with the US and all of India’s neighbours. New Delhi couldn’t have played ball to the covert corner-Japan plan as it was obviously aware of the Chinese design behind the gala parade.

In fact, the grand parade and the careful use of imagery could even be interpreted as China’s provocation to its neighbours, including India. The public display of its intercontinental ballistic-missile arsenal is surely a warning to the US, whose military might is still believed to be superior. The Dongfeng missile series was among the key display items at the show. Making its public debut was the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, seen as a threat to the US aircraft carrier strike groups.

It remains to be seen whether China, the highest military spender in the world after the US, triggers an arms race in its neighbourhood following the display. But President Xi made a good attempt at neutralising the visual impact by publicly announcing a troop cut of up to 300,000 personnel in the coming days. This is expected to happen by 2017 and would then enable Beijing to spend more in modernising the military; and making the PLA leaner and more efficient.

Whether or not President Xi can handle the large number of decommissioned military men is left to be seen, but during the parade, he certainly relished 12,000 of his soldiers and 50 generals leading troop formations greeting him.

Noticeably, the clear blue skies over Tiananmen Square had disappeared soon after the parade got over. Now, the world has to wait and see if China, having demonstrated its military might, continues to pursue a seemingly expansionist campaign across the Himalayas as well as on the East and South China seas. One would like to believe President Xi that he and his fellow Chinese “love peace” and do not believe in “hegemony or expansion.” India on its part cannot afford to be taken in by Beijing’s rhetoric and has to remain guarded while pushing for better ties with a level playing field.

That, of course, is not an easy task.

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