China is set to display its military ambitions to the world this week

China wins first round on South China Sea contest

China will roll out its latest weaponry through the heart of Beijing this week in a massive parade widely seen as a public show of its growing military capability and ambitions.

The military parade on Thursday, the first under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, is billed by Beijing as a sincere commemoration for those who fought and died in World War Two.

But Western leaders, including Australia’s, have shunned Beijing’s invitations, worried that the none-too-subtle projection of military power is no more than an exercise in drum-beating nationalism, at a time of heightened tensions in the East and South China seas.

For Mr Xi, who as chairman of China’s Central Military Commission is also the commander of the world’s largest army, it is another milestone in his centralisation of authority since his elevation to power in 2012.

“There’s this focus [where] they really need to build up their effectiveness in maritime and the ability to project power,” says Tai Ming Cheung, director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation in San Diego. “What Xi Jinping talks about is the ability to not just be able to fight wars but win wars. This is his message.”

In a historical context, the military parade also sends a message to Japan over what China perceives as their refusal to fully atone for wartime acts – a thorny issue that has haunted the relationship between the two Asian powers.

Military parades of such scale are usually held for every tenth 10th anniversary of the country’s founding. Rather than wait until 2019, Mr Xi declared a new national holiday, Victory Day. (The full title –  the 70th anniversary of Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War and the World Anti-Fascist War Victory Commemoration Day – is revealing).

“The display of military hardware on the one hand abundantly shows our national defence and military achievements,” says National Defence University professor Qiao Liang. “On the other hand, it also shows the People’s Liberation Army of China’s complete determination and ability to defend the country’s sovereignty and territory.”

But beyond the arrays of tanks, air echelon formations and 12,000 goose-stepping soldiers trained to march the length of Tiananmen square with 128 precise steps in 66 seconds, Mr Xi’s show of strength comes just at the most testing period of his leadership.

A ferocious sell-off on China’s sharemarkets has underscored concerns that the country’s economy is slowing markedly, and undergoing an unprecedentedly difficult transition. In Tianjin, dramatic explosions at a chemical warehouse led to tragic loss of life and accusations of corruption, lax enforcement of safety standards and environmental cover-ups.

Both issues have led to people, both in and out of China, openly questioning the leadership’s credentials to an extent not seen previously during Mr Xi’s reign.

In more ways than one, the parade is a big deal for Mr Xi, and no effort has been spared to ensure its smooth running.

Beijing has been bathed in uncharacteristically blue skies for the past week as the capital prepares for virtual lockdown. More than 850,000 security personnel and volunteers will be mobilised. Factories and construction sites have been ordered shut and half of the city’s cars forced off the roads two weeks in advance.

The overt militarisation prompted a diplomatic headache for Western nations, worried their absence might offend China but wary of being seen to endorse the military spectacle.

Among those who will attend are Russian President Vladimir Putin, and leaders from Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan, Cuba and Egypt.

But US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister, David Cameron have shunned the event. Australia is sending Michael Ronaldson, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs.

Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, confirmed last week that he – unsurprisingly – would not attend.

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