On September 3rd the largest military parade ever held in the People’s Republic of China dominated the streets of Beijing and also the TV screens of the nation. Ostensibly the parade was to mark the 70th anniversary of China’s victory in what it calls the “War of Chinese People’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression”, and what is commonly known in the West as the Second Sino-Japanese War.
The parade itself gave the world a glimpse of some Chinese military hardware that had never before been seen, and an overall impression of a militarily strong country ready and prepared to defend itself should the need arise (not that anyone sensible is suggesting China is under imminent threat of attack from the Japanese, or anyone else for that matter). President Xi Jinping was at the centre of proceedings, greeting the massed troops by declaring “Comrades, you have worked hard”. His speech was littered with references to Japanese aggression and made much of the CCP’s role in defeating global fascism in World War II, a narrative that has become more deeply emphasised in recent years but which is, at best, an exaggeration of the party’s position in China at the time. The speech was also notable for an announcement that the PLA would be reducing its troop numbers by 300,000, something which came as a surprise to many analysts and also, presumably, to some of those in the parade who are now facing redundancy.
The parade was significant for China watchers to see who turned up and who didn’t. Despite some earlier rumours that Japanese Prime Minister Abe had held preliminary discussions about attending the parade, the overt anti-Japanese nature of the event meant that he had far too much to lose domestically by showing his face. In the end, Japan sent no representation and even lodged a complaint with the UN about Ban Ki-Moon’s own decision to appear.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was, unsurprisingly, given a great deal of prominence, particularly as Russia was one of 17 foreign countries to participate in the parade itself (others included Pakistan, Mexico and Egypt). South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye was the most prominent leader from Asia and her presence underscored the recent closeness of China-South Korea relations, defined as much by their mutual dislike of Japan as anything else. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un did not appear (it would have been unprecedented if he had) but the country did send Choe Ryong-Hae, a senior official who has previously conducted international diplomacy on behalf of Kim. In all, there were 20 heads of state present, with a smattering of other top leaders from around the world. Notably absent, in addition to Japan, were any significant delegations from the US, the UK (although former Prime Minister Tony Blair was spotted), Western Europe, Australia or the Middle East.
The attendees confirmed two things. Firstly, the US and its allies continue to resist China’s attempts to position itself as a global leader with legitimacy stemming from both its own power and its demonstrable restraint in exercising it (the parade ended with a symbolic release of doves over Tiananmen Square). Secondly, it proved that China is not as isolated in Asia as is frequently presented, particularly in Japan. That the only significant power in the region not to send a major delegation was Japan itself suggests that it is at risk of becoming the isolated one. The CCP’s version of its place in history is certainly questionable, but its position in today’s global order is far less disputable.