Saturday, Jul 22, 2017, 8:50 AM CST – China


Parade Diplomacy

Leaders, Weapons and Politics

The gravity attached to China’s recent military parade makes every official’s presence, absence, position and handshake a symbol of China’s growing strength and its complex relationships with other regional powers

Chinese President Xi Jinping (center) with overseas dignitaries before the military parade in Beijing Photo by Xinhua

Honor guards representing the three arms of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army march during the parade Photo by IC

 Since China announced it would hold a military parade on September 3 to mark its victory in what it officially terms the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War, the parade’s guest list drew international attention as analysts viewed it as a kind of barometer for China’s global influence.

As the parade headed toward Tian’anmen Square on that sunny Thursday morning, a total of 23 heads of state were in attendance, and troops from 17 countries marched along with their Chinese counterparts.

Absence of the West

As expected, leaders of major Western countries were absent from the event. Czech Republic President Milos Zeman was the only European Union head of state who attended the parade, and larger Western countries only sent ministers or lower-level officials. For example, France and Italy sent their foreign ministers, and the US, Germany and Canada were represented by their ambassadors to China.

But China rejected the idea that the parade was being boycotted by the West, and stressed that most Western countries did accept their invitations to attend. “It is up to each country to decide whom to send,” said Zhang Ming, a deputy foreign minister. “As the old Chinese saying goes, ‘anyone who comes is our guest.’ We welcome them all.” 

According to State publication Global Times, China sent invitations to 51 countries for the Victory Day ceremony. Everyone accepted except for Japan and the Philippines.

A report by the State’s official Xinhua News Agency emphasized that US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who visited China prior to the parade, said in her August 28 meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping that President Barack Obama thinks highly of the Chinese people’s great contributions to the Allied victory in World War II and of the US-China friendship forged during the war, one of the main themes that China highlighted during the parade.

However, although China downplayed the absence of Western leaders, their poor attendance does reflect the reservations held by the Western world about the message sent through the parade’s display of military power, especially when China’s more assertive foreign and defense policies are increasingly seen as a challenge to a Western-centric world order.

Russia and the SCO

In contrast with the absence of Western leaders, the event was attended by senior leaders from many of China’s neighboring countries, as well as other developing countries in Africa and Latin America. A group that received particular attention were attendees representing the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Cofounded in 2001 by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the SCO has played an increasingly important role in China’s diplomacy in recent years, both politically and economically, especially since China adopted the One Belt, One Road economic initiative as its major global strategy. In 2014, the SCO agreed to hold a series of events to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

With a greatly strengthened relationship with Russia, it is not surprising that the event’s most prominent guest was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was seated next to Xi during the parade. This diplomatic courtesy was a reflection of the courtesy Xi received when he attended Russia’s V-Day parade in Moscow on May 9.

Of the SCO’s seven member states, not including China, six sent their top leaders or honor guards to attend the parade. The only absence among the SOC bloc was India, which joined the SCO along with Pakistan in July. According to Indian media, China asked India to send a 75-strong honor guard to attend the event, but India declined the invitation.

Besides the SCO bloc, many of China’s neighbors also sent either their top leaders or honor guards, including Mongolia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos. Other countries who sent top leaders or troops include Belarus, Cuba, Serbia, Venezuela, Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa and Mexico.

In total, 10 out of the 14 countries sharing land borders with China, boundaries that make up about three-fourths of the length of China’s total land borders, sent either their top leaders or honor guards to participate in the parade.

In the past few years, China has devoted significant diplomatic resources to what many call “periphery diplomacy.” A better relationship with Russia and other bordering countries is considered a major factor behind China’s decision to cut the size of its military by 300,000 troops.

By announcing this decision during his speech at the parade, Xi appeared to be trying to neutralize the message conveyed by China’s display of military power and to reassure the world that China seeks peace, not conflict.

If the reduction plan is executed, the size of China’s armed forces will be reduced from 2.3 million to 2 million military personnel. Experts believe that the downsizing of China’s military will particularly target its standing army. As a traditional land power, China has a large ground force and a relatively small navy and air force. Due to a closer relationship with Russia and other bordering countries, China can reduce its resources devoted to its colossal army and focus more on developing an advanced navy and air force, something it has been steadily working on over the past two decades.

The Korean Element

Among all the leaders that attended the parade, the one who perhaps received the most attention was South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Being one of the US’s major allies in the region, China, South Korea and the US all watched closely for word on her attendance before it was eventually confirmed.

Many expected that Park would not make an appearance to avoid being seen as too close to China, especially after South Korea’s decision to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank earlier this year. Therefore, Park’s eventual attendance has raised some concern in the US that South Korea is “tilting” towards China. In contrast, Park was received with special courtesy in Beijing. During the parade, Park was seated near Xi during the parade; only Putin was closer to the president.

It appears that Park’s decision was well received back in South Korea, as her public approval ratings rose from 49 percent before the parade to 54 percent after, according to polling released on September 4. Analysts believe that Park’s decision to attend the event was motivated by a shared sentiment over Japan’s attitude towards its wartime history, a desire to seek more diplomatic independence in solving its security issues with North Korea, and a drive to cultivate a better economic relationship with China. 

Both China and South Korea are wary of Japan’s tendency towards historical revisionism regarding World War II. While Xi has met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe briefly on a few occasions, Park has not met with Abe since assuming power.

Referring to a shared “time of great adversity” as “a precious foundation for the friendship of both nations,” Park also attended a ceremony in Shanghai after the parade for the reopening of the historic site that hosted the Republic of Korea’s provisional government while Korea was occupied by Japan.

Apart from finding common ground over shared wartime experiences, South Korea seeks China’s support in solving its major national security issue, North Korea. Just before Park’s China trip, Seoul and Pyongyang negotiated an agreement to de-escalate tensions following an exchange of fire across the Demilitarized Zone.

It is reported that when Park and Xi met on September 2, Park thanked China for its role in helping end the recent conflict, while Xi reiterated China’s commitment to a denuclearized Korean peninsula, calling for renewed talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.

In contrast with Park’s presence and the courtesy she received was the absence of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, although rumors circulated before the event that he would perhaps attend. Kim has not visited China or any other foreign country since assuming power in December 2011. Instead, Pyongyang sent Choe Ryong Hae, Kim’s top aide, who was seated in a far corner of the rostrum, something many analysts considered a sign that the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang is steadily deteriorating.


As the parade, which officially commemorated the victory of “the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression,” is considered to be “anti-Japanese” in nature, Japan was no doubt a country to watch during the event.

In the run-up to the event, Chinese officials repeatedly stressed the parade was not targeted at any specific country. During Xi’s parade speech, he mentioned “Japanese aggression” and “Japanese militarists” several times when talking about the war, but made no direct reference to postwar Japan or the current Japanese administration.

However, given the recent rows between China and Japan over a variety of issues ranging from attitudes toward wartime history and the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute to a more general regional rivalry, it is inevitable that Japan would feel uncomfortable with the event and its tone.

Unlike the Western countries who sent lower-level officials, no official representative from Tokyo made an appearance at the parade. Former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama – who issued a landmark apology for the war in 1995 – announced he would attend in a personal capacity, but, according to the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, he became too ill to attend, expressing his regret to a Chinese official who visited him in the hospital.

Despite the absence of any Japanese officials, there appeared to be diplomatic exchanges behind the scenes prior to the parade. In late August, the Japanese media reported that Abe had expressed interest in visiting China immediately before or after the commemorative events, a suggestion later rejected by China’s Foreign Ministry.

In a news conference held the same day as the parade, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told the media that “it was extremely regrettable” that Xi did not include “elements of reconciliation” in his speech.

Despite Japanese officials’ reservations over the parade itself, they reserved most of their criticism for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. After failing to dissuade Ban from attending the parade in late August, Japanese officials denounced Ban’s decision on several different occasions after the event. Suga, for example, said that the UN should “be neutral” regarding “a specific period of the past involving member states” and that it should be more “future-oriented” in its work with the international community.

In response, Ban said that the UN is “an impartial body,” instead of a “neutral” one. “If you do not learn correctly from the past, it would be difficult to move ahead toward the right direction,” he said.

Japan’s criticism toward Ban appears to stem from a concern that his attendance strengthens China’s claim of being a cofounder of the postwar international order, especially because it seemed to reaffirm the fact that China gained its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council based on its wartime contributions.

Moreover, the message that China will “defend the postwar international order” appears to clash directly with Abe’s well-known campaign phrase: “Breaking away from the postwar regime.” Although Abe now argues that the phrase only refers to Japan’s internal affairs, the ambiguity shown by many officials in the Abe administration on various issues regarding Japan’s wartime atrocities have suggested otherwise.

More recently, as Abe has pushed a set of new security bills through the Diet, Japan’s parliament, leading to large-scale domestic protests, some analysts say that Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution has been effectively amended.

On August 27, a week prior to China’s parade, Japan launched its second Izumo-class helicopter carrier. Japanese officials said the 24,000-ton ship, the largest Japanese military vessel launched since World War II, is a direct response to China’s growing submarine fleet.

For Chinese analysts, what is most significant about the ship is that it bears the name Kaga, the same name as a World War II-era Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier that participated in major Japanese offensives along China’s eastern coast and later took part in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The carrier was eventually sunk during the Battle of Midway by US forces.

From a Chinese perspective, recycling the name of a World War II aircraft carrier at a time when that period of history is ultra-sensitive is yet another example of what many Chinese consider to be Japan’s “nostalgia” for its imperial past.

As China and Japan have become further entrenched in their mutual distrust, their disagreements over the correct historical narrative and their current regional roles have also intensified. At the same time, neighboring powers are realigning their interests and priorities in the face of China’s recent rise. With this geopolitical backdrop, one of the region’s strongest rivalries seems to be growing deeper and deeper roots.


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