“No force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation forging ahead.”
— Chinese President Xi Jinping, Oct. 1
Japan and the rest of the region watched warily as China marked the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China with a symbolic military parade and President Xi Jinping reviewing troops in Beijing on Tuesday. With giant portraits of communist leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin carried through the parade streets, the celebratory event served to firmly place Xi alongside the fathers of modern China.
According to the Ministry of National Defense, 15,000 personnel, more than 160 aircraft and 580 pieces of weaponry and equipment were part of the 80-minute-long display of the PRC’s military and political power. Beijing showcased weaponry such the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile and the DF-17 ballistic missile system. The former is an ICBM missile with 10 independent warheads that is reportedly able to reach anywhere on the globe in 30 minutes. The latter is a hypersonic system that has been developed to evade land- and sea-based U.S. anti-ballistic missile systems.
Other military hardware on display was the upgraded H-6 bomber. Analysts believe it has been refurbished so that it can release the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, a weapon that has the capability to cause significant damage to large ships, including aircraft carriers. New “aircraft carrier killer” DF-100 hypersonic missiles were also on full display.
Arguably, these systems could be said to be defensive in nature based on China’s experience of being dismembered by European powers and then by Japan in the first and second Sino-Japanese wars in the 19th and 20th centuries. A further argument could be made based on China’s sense that it is encircled by hostile forces bent on “keeping China down,” a system that is propped up by U.S. military bases, alliances and partners throughout China’s perceived historical backyard.
Seen through the lens of Beijing’s so-called Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence that it uses as guiding principles for relations with foreign countries, Japan and others are left questioning the principles that leaders in Beijing are espousing, including mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.
The weapon systems displayed in the parade are clearly aimed at securing China’s core interests, including: 1) state sovereignty; 2) national security; 3) territorial integrity; 4) national reunification; 5) China’s political system established by the constitution and overall social stability; and 6) basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.
Accomplishing these core interests necessitates China pushing the U.S. naval assets well beyond the first and second island chains that act as access denial points for China to freely navigate into the Pacific Ocean in order to project its naval power without hindrance.
With that in mind, weapon systems showcased at the 70th anniversary military parade, such DF-17 hypersonic gliders, DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missiles, DR-8 drones that can quickly fly close to aircraft carriers during conflicts to send precise targeting information, are all meant to raise the costs for the United States maintaining a forward naval presence in what China regards as its territorial waters.
While not directly targeting Japan, the consequences of the development of weapon systems that can erode superior U.S. naval capabilities — and crucial years of experience, training and fighting in the maritime environment — are severe.
Japan has long relied on U.S. naval assets, military bases and forward position in the region to serve as a strong deterrent against unilateral actions by China (and North Korea).
These strategic challenges leave policymakers with new questions of how to manage their security challenges at a time when states are developing and deploying a repertoire of weapon systems that not only dilute the effectiveness of current anti-ballistic missile systems such as sea- and land-based Aegis systems, but also the ability of the U.S. to rely on aircraft carrier groups as sufficient deterrents against an increasingly confident Chinese Navy.
One approach Japan is already taking is to enmesh itself in a series of strategic partnerships with states in and out of the region. While not formal alliances, they act to build shared norms and interoperability so that they can work more synergistically. Trade agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement also create another layer of multilateral relationships that increase the number of stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific that would have something to lose if military force is used by one or more states in the region.
A third line of defense that will have to be considered is the development of similar systems with the U.S. and partners to increase the cost for China in deploying systems that target U.S. forward deployed naval and other assets.
For Chinese citizens though, the parade elicited contradictory emotions of national pride and disquietude. Ordinary citizens have been born and bred on a diet of nationalistic education that focuses on China’s “century of humiliation,” on outside powers trying to “keep China down,” and a sense that China fell far behind the West over the past two centuries and that they are on a path to achieving the “China Dream,” the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and people.
For Chinese citizens the military hardware that was on display as soldiers marched down the Avenue of Heavenly Peace symbolizes China’s return to strength, overcoming its development challenges to become a modern, high-tech and powerful country that has overcome the shackles of humiliation to create a strong, modern and prosperous state.
Those with the experience of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the poverty and chaos that marked most of China’s 20th century also look to the Communist Party and Xi in particular as having delivered 40 years of stable economic growth and social stability compared to the past. For many, the cost of their political freedom has been well worth the stability and socio-economic growth that they have experienced. For them, the parade is progress, development and a sense of immense pride.
Notwithstanding feeling of national pride about China’s development and newfound military power, the parade left citizens in Beijing and across the nation with contradictory sentiments as well, wondering why the state had to restrict pedestrians’ movements on a day of national celebration. Why does the state have to intensify domestic security and internet control if, as stated by Xi, “the Chinese people managed to stand up on their feet and embark on a great journey of national rejuvenation,” and “today a socialist China is standing in front the world and there is no force that can shake the foundation of this great nation?”
Despite spectacular displays of military power, political symbolism and totems representing development, the take-home message for Japan is that not all is as it seems in China. China is challenged by peripheral struggles in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan. The economy is decelerating and political control cannot be sustained without severe state control, nationalist education and an emerging technological Leninist system that confers social privileges to citizens based on what the state deems acceptable behavior.
If China wanted to eschew security concerns about what its rise means for Japan and the world, it should have reflected upon Thucydides’ ideas of power that “of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men the most.”
Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA).