For the first time, China marked the anniversary of the end of World War II through a grand military parade, rather than a solemn ceremony. World leaders from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to South Korea’s Park Geun-hye also joined the event.
The country celebrated its defeat of Imperial Japan after years of heroic resistance, which saw 15 million people killed and 100 million more displaced. No other nation, with the exception of the Soviet Union, made as much sacrifice to defeat the Axis powers.
China was, in the words of Oxford scholar Rana Mitter, the “forgotten ally”, which played a pivotal role in ending the tragic global conflict in the Allies’ favour.
|Inside Story: China flexes its military muscle|
The Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) forces, led by Chiang Kai-shek, were at the forefront of the Chinese resistance against Japan, but they were too enervated to win the subsequent civil war against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which overtook the country in 1949.
The KMT ended up in permanent exile in Taiwan, dreaming about unification under its rule and fighting for its survival against a communist behemoth over the succeeding decades.
In a rare display of cross-straits national unity, war veterans from both the KMT and CCP forces were invited to join this year’s victory parade. The whole event was as much about China’s past as it was about its present rise as a great power.
After months of struggling with massive economic shocks, Chinese President Xi Jinping leveraged the event to rally round the flag, boosting his legitimacy as China’s paramount leader and presenting his country as a formidable military power.
Up to 12,000 members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marched along Chang’an Avenue by the iconic Tiananmen Square. China displayed as many as 500 items of weaponry, boasting the country’s latest advancements in military modernisation and innovation. It was the 14th military parade since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
To eliminate the city’s notorious smog, Beijing ordered as many as 10,000 power plants and factories, including those in six surrounding provinces, to reduce production or shut down altogether for almost a week. Beijing’s international airport was also temporarily closed during the parade, with the skies reserved exclusively for up to 200 military aircrafts to fly by.
For weeks, traffic was heavily regulated and cut into half. The Beijing Meteorological Bureau was under “special wartime working conditions” to ensure accurate forecasts and weather updates.
The capital was fully mobilised to showcase an historic spectacle. Nothing was left to chance. Just like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the event was calculated to make a strong impression on both the domestic and international audiences.
Since the end of the Cold War, China’s communist leadership has relied on popular nationalism as the new ideological glue to boost the legitimacy of the ruling regime. The introduction of the Patriotic Education Campaign in the early 1990s marked the beginning of an aggrieved form of nationalism, which emphasised China’s victimisation at the hands of foreign powers, particularly the West and Imperial Japan.
China is not only trying to match the US' defence spending and conventional military capability, but it is also developing advanced asymmetrical weaponries that will dramatically raise the costs of an American military intervention in East Asia.
Despite the Sino-Japanese rapprochement in the 1970s, recent years have seen an uptick in anti-Japanese sentiments, which culminated in violent protests in 2012 amid an intensified territorial jostling over the disputed Senkaku, or Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
While the World War II anniversary has served as a unifying event in post-war Europe, with Germany fully reintegrated into the fabric of the European community, Asia is confronting an almost opposite situation.
History has become a point of contention rather than unity, especially among northeast Asian nations of Japan, China, and the Korean Peninsula. Anticipating a largely anti-Japanese parade intended to inspire pride and redemption among the Chinese populace, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, along with the leaders of the Western world, declined to attend the ceremony.
The Abe administration has been accused by neighbours, particularly China, of remilitarising the nation, which has remained pacifist throughout the post-war period. In Tokyo’s view, the country is simply adjusting to a new security environment, largely defined by a territorially assertive and militarily powerful China.
The parade sent mixed signals to China’s regional rivals and neighbours. On one hand, to allay anxieties over China’s growing military muscle, Xi declared that “no matter how much stronger it may become, China will never seek hegemony or expansion”. He also announced the reduction of PLA’s massive standing army by 300,000 troops, the fifth troop reduction initiative in the last three decades.
From around four million troops in the early 1980s, China is expected to field a two million strong standing army in the coming years, which will still be by far the largest in the world.
It is a classic quality over quantity reform, with the Xi administration calling for a battle-ready, modern, and nimble PLA.
In recent years, China has doubled down on its military modernisation, shifting from a continental to a maritime power, while cutting down on red tape, corruption, and personnel overcapacity.
The aim is to create a leaner but meaner force that can take on powerful rivals, especially as China steps up its territorial jostling in the East and South China seas.
For the first time, the country also displayed its notorious “carrier-killer” missiles, the DF-21D and DF-26, which are a critical component of Beijing’s aim to deny the US naval forces access to China’s adjacent waters.
China is not only trying to match the US’ defence spending and conventional military capability, but it is also developing advanced asymmetrical weaponries that will dramatically raise the costs of an American military intervention in East Asia.
The grand parade sent an unmistakable message that China will no longer be “bullied” by foreign powers. And that it, once again, like in ancient times, stands as the pre-eminent indigenous power in the region.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.