HONG KONG – In Beijing, President Xi Jinping’s grand military parade through the capital will be cheered as a display of national pride after 70 years of Communist Party rule. In Washington, many will see a growing threat to American dominance in the Western Pacific.
Alongside the tanks, troop carriers and columns of goose-stepping soldiers, the 80-minute procession past Tiananmen Square on Tuesday is expected to showcase a set of missiles that have prompted the U.S. in recent months and years to try and put more firepower in East Asia. China has poured money into building what former Pacific Cmdr. Harry Harris called “the largest and most diverse missile force in the world.”
The parade — Xi’s second such event in four years — will feature the fruits of that labor, according to analysis of photos of equipment staged in advance of the holiday. One intercontinental ballistic missile — the Dongfeng-41, which has one of the longest ranges in the world — will be publicly displayed for the first time, researchers Antoine Bondaz and Stephane Delory of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris wrote.
“In terms of pure political communication, the missiles are going to be what everyone is going to talk about, because it’s a powerful demonstration of force and strength from the Chinese,” Bondaz said Friday.
Among the most immediate concerns of the U.S. and its Asian allies is the People’s Liberation Army’s arsenal of shorter-range, nonnuclear missiles. Over the past 15 years, China has doubled its supply of launchers and built an array of weapons that have extended the reach of its conventional warheads to cover most of America’s Western Pacific bases.
Such midrange, land-based missiles, which the U.S. was banned from possessing under its Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, were among the reasons why some supported the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Cold War-era pact this year. The PLA’s dedicated Rocket Force has tested advanced “hypersonic” missiles that are almost impossible to intercept, according to a Japanese defense white paper released Friday.
“The medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that the Chinese have developed, and which will be on display on the first of October, are a critical component” of Beijing’s strategy, said Sam Roggeveen, director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute’s international security program. “What it’s meant to do is to make it extremely risky and extremely expensive to conduct any military operations in North Asia.”
U.S. officials have estimated that around 95 percent of China’s arsenal would’ve run afoul of the INF treaty, which the U.S. has also accused Moscow of violating. The PLA’s missiles could allow China to “quickly use limited force to achieve a fait accompli victory” before the U.S. could respond, according to one recent report from the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Center.
While pulling out of the treaty lets the U.S. re-introduce its own missiles, the world’s most powerful military is playing catch-up with China. The Pentagon conducted its first flight test of a land-based cruise missile last month, and new Defense Secretary Mark Esper said during his first visit to Asia that he was looking for sites in the region to base such weapons.
Esper’s suggestion exposed the hurdles facing any Washington-led effort to counter China’s threat. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison ruled out hosting U.S. missiles and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has run into stiff opposition against his efforts to deploy an American missile-defense system, let alone offensive rockets.
Any move to introduce such missiles would also face resistance from China, which subjected South Korea to an economic embargo after it agreed in 2016 to introduce a U.S. missile shield in 2017. During Esper’s trip, China’s foreign ministry warned that Australia, Japan and South Korea would suffer countermeasures if they deployed the weapons.
“The hosting of INF-range missiles in the Indo-Pacific theater will be a challenging endeavor,” said J. Berkshire Miller, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. “China will surely look to place intense political and economic pressure on any U.S. ally that looks to potentially host such INF-range missiles.”
For its part, China said the parade, similar to events held on other milestone anniversaries, is meant to celebrate the country’s founding and not directed at any other nation.
“China has no need or desire to show off its muscle through military parades,” Cai Zijun, deputy director of the operations bureau for China’s Central Military Commission’s Joint Staff Department, told reporters Tuesday. “The stronger China’s military, the better the chances for peace.”
At the same time, Xi’s parade risks reinforcing arguments that China’s military might represents a threat to its neighbors.
“These weapons can be hidden, moved around, and an attack on them would be an attack on the Chinese mainland — for all these reasons, they’re a top priority for the PLA,” said Bates Gill, professor of Asia-Pacific security studies at Australia’s Macquarie University. “Rolling them out at this parade is all just part of this — making sure everyone understands that.”
And foreign weapons experts will take advantage of the chance to get a glimpse of hardware that China usually keeps well hidden. The procession will “demonstrate the quantitative and qualitative modernization of China’s ballistic arsenal,” Bondaz and Delory wrote in their analysis.
“While some of the strategic missiles and weapon systems that will be launched are already known, others have never yet been publicly disclosed and some are known only through rumors,” they said.
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