China has put on its biggest display of military might in a parade to commemorate the defeat of Japan in World War II.
The event on Thursday was shunned by many Western leaders but underscored Beijing’s growing confidence in its armed forces.
In his opening speech, President Xi Jinping paid tribute to the Chinese people who “unwaveringly fought hard and defeated aggression” from Japan.
He also announced that China would cut 300,000 personnel from the People’s Liberation Army, but he did not give a timeframe for the troop reduction.
More than 12,000 troops, mostly Chinese but with contingents from Russia and elsewhere, marched through Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square from 10am (02:00 GMT).
They were accompanied by a range of ballistic missiles, tanks and armoured vehicles, many never seen in public before, as advanced fighter jets and bombers flew overhead.
For Xi, who presided over China’s biggest event of the year, the parade was a welcome distraction from the country’s plunging stock markets, slowing economy and recent blasts at a chemical warehouse that killed 145 people.
Xi was joined by Russian President Vladimir Putin and leaders of several other nations with close ties to China, including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
Most Western leaders rebuffed invitations to attend, diplomats told the Reuters news agency, unhappy about the guest list and wary of the message China is sending to a region already rattled by its military assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea.
The Chinese government has repeatedly said the parade is not aimed at today’s Japan, but to remember the past and to remind the world of China’s huge sacrifices during the conflict. However, it rarely misses an opportunity to draw attention to Japan’s wartime role.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not attending the event, which is being held one day after the 70th anniversary of Tokyo’s surrender in World War II.
“For decades, when people in Western countries talk about World War II, they usually refer to the battles on the European continent and have little knowledge about China’s role as the major oriental theatre of the war,” state news agency Xinhua said in an English-language commentary this week.
Chinese navy in Bering Sea
Xi has set great store on China’s military modernisation, including developing an ocean-going “blue water” navy capable of defending the country’s growing global interests.
In a sign of that emerging capability, five Chinese navy ships are sailing in international waters in the Bering Sea off Alaska, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, at a time when US President Barack Obama is touring the state.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said it was the first time the United States had seen Chinese navy ships in the Bering Sea.
It was not clear whether their presence was timed to coincide with Obama’s visit or if it followed a recent Chinese-Russian navy exercise. Chinese state media has said nothing about the Bering Sea deployment.
“It is living up to what the Chinese have been saying, ‘We are now a blue water navy. We will operate in the far seas and we are a global presence,'” said Dean Cheng, a China expert at the Heritage Foundation think-tank in Washington.
Xi will meet Obama in Washington for talks later this month that will be dominated by a host of thorny issues, including China’s growing military reach.