In honor of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) staged a major military parade, featuring some 12,000 troops and major displays of new equipment. Prominent among these was the DF-21D, the so-called “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missile.
The parading of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s latest equipment served several purposes. Most important, perhaps, was a message to Japan: China is prepared to defend itself and to counter what it perceives as a revival of Japanese militarism in the form of Prime Minister’s Shinzo Abe’s moves to allow participation in collective self-defense. This was underscored in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s speech, which repeatedly referred to Japanese aggression and militarism in World War II (as well as to the very occasion itself, Japan’s surrender).
Nearly important as the message to Japan was the message to the Chinese population, which was, in essence, “We, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), will not allow a repetition of World War II.” The display of equipment, much of which is presented as indigenously developed and manufactured, represents the achievements of the CCP in modernizing China’s industrial base and scientific and technological foundation. This supports the explicit message Xi made as well: “All its [the PLA’s] officers, men and women must bear in mind their responsibility of serving the people whole-heartedly, faithfully fulfill the sacred duty of protecting the nation’s security and people’s well-being, and carry out the noble mission of upholding world peace.”
There was also a message clearly transmitted to the United States: “You take us on at your own risk.” The inclusion of a weapon touted as targeting aircraft carriers was no coincidence. Nor, in all likelihood, was the decision to dispatch a Chinese naval flotilla to Alaskan waters, the first time such a force has ever ventured into that region. From the Chinese perspective, the combination of weapons display and force presence will hopefully dissuade the United States from continuing American air and naval activities off China’s coast—a practice the Chinese have a longstanding objection to, despite the clear legality of such activities by all nations.
In this regard, the parade also served to commemorate another milestone—the 120th anniversary of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). That war saw China suffer a humiliating loss (in stark contrast to the victorious conclusion to World War II), including the destruction of the Chinese Northern Fleet. Chinese efforts to not only acquire modern military technology, but also produce corresponding doctrine, undertake training, and improve recruiting are arguably all the result of lessons learned from the “Jiawu War” (China’s name for the conflict).
This emphasis on doctrine, training, and recruiting is reflected in the announcement of a 300,000-troop cut in the PLA, which Xi made during his speech at the parade. This reduction is consistent with the longer-term effort by the PLA to both pare down its size and shift from a military focused on quantity to one more focused on quality—part of the “Two Transformations” that Jiang Zemin pushed nearly two decades ago. The reduction in force will presumably free up resources that can be reallocated to better pay, better quality of life, additional training, and/or equipment acquisition. The long-term reduction in military pensions is particularly important to the Chinese in light of ongoing concerns over its economic outlook.