While the noise of tanks and thousands of marching feet may be intended to stiffen the confidence of Chinese citizens watching Thursday’s ceremony marking the defeat of Japan in World War II, Tokyo’s reaction is likely to be far more subdued.
Despite the event’s overt anti-Japanese tone — it celebrates what China calls the Victory of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War — the military parade is likely more for domestic consumption.
As Beijing grapples with a number of economic crises that could put the Communist Party’s authority in question, analysts say the massive demonstration of military might is a chance for the nation’s leaders to shift attention away from the souring economy.
“I think that the military element of the parade is more of a symbol internally of China’s ‘strength and muscle,’ especially in light of some of the recent bad news on the economic front,” said J. Berkshire Miller, fellow for the East Asia program at the New York-based EastWest Institute. “This provides an opportunity for the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and PLA (People’s Liberation Army) to invoke pride in China’s advancing military.
“Of course, there is also an element of showcasing here to foreign powers — the U.S. and Japan first and foremost.”
China’s economic woes come on the heels of Beijing’s abrupt move to devalue the yuan last month in an apparent bid to help exporters and revive the sagging economy. The move has also roiled global markets, with the Dow fluctuating wildly over the last week.
The economic effects of Beijing’s move have also been felt in Tokyo, where the markets have seesawed for weeks.
The military parade marks the day after Japan formally surrendered to the Allies 70 years ago, in a ceremony aboard a U.S. battleship.
The celebration in Beijing — which will involve 12,000 Chinese soldiers, soaring warplanes and more than 500 pieces of hardware including tanks and intercontinental ballistic missiles — is the crown jewel among numerous events in the run-up to the anniversary, which China has been adept at using to lambaste Japan.
“Anti-Japanese propaganda has been on the rise for several years in China,” said James Schoff of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program, referring to movies, TV shows, education, and public discourse.
He said, as far as the leadership is concerned, the propaganda serves “as a unifying force for the people — and reminds the people of the early days and ideals of the CCP, even as the true communist ideals give way to capitalism. So the parade is very consistent with that.”
Turning the focus on Japan diverts attention from criticism overseas about the rise of China’s military and expenditure on defense, Schoff said, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in particular, is an easy target for China’s leadership to help maintain its own support rate.
China’s defense budget is reported to balloon to $141 billion this year, though the actual figure is believed to be far higher. The Japanese Defense Ministry, meanwhile, is seeking a 2.2 percent increase in military spending to ¥5.09 trillion ($42.38 billion) for the year starting in April, reports said. If approved, this would be Japan’s biggest defense budget in 14 years.
A chunk of Japan’s defense spending is expected to go toward bolstering its military presence in the Japan-administered, China-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Still, analysts say Beijing isn’t specifically targeting Tokyo — one of its top trading partners — by brandishing its new military gear.
“It’s more of a statement to the U.S. and to other nations in the region, (South) Korea, Russia, Southeast Asia, as well as to the Chinese public,” said Schoff. “Of course, Beijing probably wants the Japanese to be a little frightened and awed by China’s capabilities, so that they might be less likely to support a strong Japanese government response to Chinese activity in the East China Sea.”
The anniversary events also come ahead of the expected passage of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party-backed security legislation in the Upper House. The contentious bills have sparked widespread protests at home, while stoking the ire of Beijing and Seoul.
South Korea, which like China is engaged in territorial disputes with Japan and which similarly alleges that Tokyo is whitewashing history, has said that President Park Geun-hye will attend the festivities.
Despite this, Park’s planned presence garnered a muted response from Tokyo as Japan attempts to warm its chilly ties with South Korea.
Sebastian Maslow, an assistant political science professor at the Tohoku University Graduate School of Law, chalks up Park’s move to her push for closer “political and economic ties with China during her term.”
Perhaps more worrying for Tokyo has been the announcement by United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean national, that he would attend the parade.
While most Western leaders and Abe have declined to attend the events, the U.N. secretary-general’s decision to accept Beijing’s invitation has ruffled feathers in Tokyo.
Japanese media reported that the Foreign Ministry had voiced “strong displeasure” over the U.N. chief’s attendance.
Ban told Chinese state-run media last week that he was aware of the complaints but said it was important to recognize China’s sacrifices and contributions during World War II.
Schoff said the aversion to Ban attending the parade was understandable.
“It makes no sense to me for the leader of the U.N., which had no role in the actual war itself, to attend a Chinese communist military parade complete with missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads,” he said. “Especially when you consider how much the U.N. owes a debt of gratitude to postwar Japan for its generous support of that institution for decades.”
Ultimately, though, analysts say they expect a more tempered response from Japan — especially when considering their economic interconnectivity.
“Japan doesn’t like the parade and the administration is annoyed at the anti-Japan tone. … But Japan will refrain from being too critical of the festivities overall,” said Schoff.
“They can live with some excessive Chinese patriotism, as long as it does not go too far or last too long,” he said. “Tokyo wants to get Japan-China relations back on track once these events are over.”