“Regardless of the progress of events, China will never seek hegemony, China will never seek to expand and will never inflict the tragedies it suffered in the past upon others.”

Interesting words from China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping yesterday, dressed in a “Mao” suit (the rest of his Politburo Standing Committee colleagues wore conventional suits), at the top of Tiananmen Square packed full of the country’s latest military hardware.

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Raising the bar a notch, even by its own considerably hubristic standards, China’s ruling Communist Party had decided to take the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Allied Forces over Japan — its detested, successful, first-world, democratic neighbour — to announce the arrival of gleaming new military hardware including missiles that can reach Hawaii, so Xi told the squillions glued to their TV sets.

To top it off, Xi announced that he would cut 300,000 ground troops from China’s 2 million-plus military, which many analysts believe is the first step in a planned comprehensive overhaul of the Chinese military machine.

Coming only months after widespread opprobrium for reclaiming land to build what are, effectively, military staging points, it’s a very interesting “peaceful rise” that the Middle Kingdom is trying to execute. In recent years, it has launched its first aircraft carrier — Taiwanese news reported this week that is building not one, but two more — and shown off its own stealth bomber.

A shot across the bow (excuse the pun) for the United States and its allies in the Pacific; the most prominent being Japan, South Korea — also loathed in Beijing but South Korea also hates Japan as much as China — the Philippines and, of course, Australia.

Despite all being invited, world leaders could not stay far enough away except, of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin ,who must have been ever so green with envy that Xi can get away with a spectacular throwback to the Soviet parades of yore. And South Korea’s Park Geun-Hye, whose people hate Japan even more than they hate China (you get the drift about the happy, culturally similar, neighbours in north Asia).

Further ironies abounded, especially that the victory, which China and the Communist Party were celebrating, was one in which they had only a very small hand. In September 1945 Mao and his Communist troops were holed up in rural Shaanxi province about to engage in all-out civil war with the Nationalists, who had soaked up most of the Japanese bombing in Chongqing and done most of the heavy lifting on the Chinese side of the war. They would soon pay the price by losing the civil war four years later and retreating to Taiwan.

But just to make sure that everyone knew what the parade was about China branded it the, “Victory of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War”. Not bad rhetoric from a decidedly fascist government whose soldiers goose-step with the best of them. Talk about, as one wag noted, bitter winners.

Of course, the parade was very much aimed at domestic audiences. Since taking charge of the party and thereby the country almost three years ago, Xi has played the nationalist card more relentlessly than his predecessors. And on the admittedly thin basis of some anecdotal evidence talking to cynical enough locals, it seems to have played very well at home.

For the outside world the message was less well received. China’s neighbours already wary about its hegemonic intentions — to be achieved economically as much as militarily — it was confirmation that they face a long and concerted push by China for influence in their countries.

And just in case Barack Obama was not watching, Pentagon officials said they spotted five Chinese vessels lurking not so far from the coast of Alaska, where the US President had been touring melting glaciers to help ram home his message on climate change.

The parade also served a useful purpose of snuffing out the now regular August rumour mill in China, in which former leader Jiang Zemin is close to death. This year, the rumour had an added piquancy of him being the latest and biggest tiger to be caught up in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Some of his close lieutenants may well be, but, as they like to say in China, it seems it’s still a bit early to tell. A robust-looking Jiang appeared as No. 2 after Xi, followed by Hu Jintao, his successor, at No. 3.

Certainly, China’s militarism represents a very real problem for the region with the also very real possibility of a looming cold war with the United States in the Asia Pacific, and there’s already a much hotter war underway in cyberspace.

But while China is actively and openly playing catch-up in what may soon be considered old-fashioned military stakes, it matches up far better in digital warfare.

In early 2014, Xi Jinping took charge of the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatization, a key CCP policy group. State press described it as “a major strategic issue concerning the country’s security and development as well as people’s life and work”.

Since then there have been an escalating series of hacks and attacks on US government servers, including one a few months ago that exposed the data of 21 million US government employees.

The FT reported today that the White House was ready to announce sanctions on Chinese companies “connected to the cyber theft of US intellectual property'” before Xi’s visit to Washington in two weeks.

In further remarks during his address, Xi said that China’s military was “loyally committed to its sacred duty of defending the security of the motherland and the peaceful life of the people, and loyally committed to the sacred duty of safeguarding world peace”.

Perhaps the key weapon China displayed yesterday was the Dongfeng (“East wind”) 21D “carrier-killer” missile that the country had confirmed was in development in 2011. Experts believed that it has a range of 1550km and can travel up to 10 times the speed of sound — making it very hard, or perhaps impossible, to intercept.

So we shall see.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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