Female honor guards train at a camp in Beijing ahead of the military parade in the capital on Sept 3. Photo by Zou Hong / China Daily
China will mark the 70th anniversary of the victories in the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) and the world anti-fascist war with a parade in Beijing’s Tian’anmen Square on Sept 3. It remains to be seen how this parade will be viewed by the international community, whether they will see it differently to a similar parade in Moscow’s Red Square, which was attended by President Xi Jinping.
A parade in Tian’anmen Square is a time-honored tradition. But one celebrating the victory of World War II would be exceptional. Many countries in Asia were involved in the war. But no other country has fought so hard for so long against Japanese invaders and suffered such huge losses. However, the parade in Beijing is more than a gala for all who suffered and then won. It is meant to project China as a peace-loving country that will never allow such trauma to happen again, and to convince the world that China’s growing military strength, rather than saber-rattling, is for the peace of itself and that of others.
China is rising, amid awe, fear and admiration. It is getting closer to the place it had once enjoyed in its heydays. But a rising China yearns to be loved rather than awed, let alone feared. From 1949 to 1979, albeit for different reasons, China fought a war in every decade. During the Cold War era, China had to prepare for the worst scenario involving confrontations with two superpowers at same time. But from 1980 onward, China has not used force in any dispute with any country. In other words, China’s growth in comprehensive national strength since reform hasn’t made it belligerent and its integration with the outside world have made its behavior more benign and predictable.
China’s rise has been peaceful, but not as a result of good luck. In the last two decades, there were quite serious challenges that could have derailed China from its fast track since 1979, such as former Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian’s call for referendum on independence in Taiwan, NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in erstwhile Yugoslavia, a Chinese aircraft’s collision with an American aircraft above China’s exclusive economic zone, to name but a few. Any one of these could have triggered a conflict or war. But China has managed these with utmost restraint.
The Chinese military is more cautious overseas. It was not until 2014 that China decided to send an infantry battalion for peacekeeping in South Sudan, more than 20 years after it first sent peacekeeping observers overseas.
By inviting world leaders to come to Beijing for the parade, China wishes to send a message: China can join the world in safeguarding the international order. Although it has veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, for many years, China believed it was wearing a straitjacket of international systems and regimes that are made by the West.
But China’s attitude has changed in recent years. As the second-largest economy in the world, it no longer calls for establishing “a new international political and economic order”. Instead, Premier Li Keqiang declared during his visit to India that China is the beneficiary and protector of the current international order and international system. The warm response from many Western countries to the China-proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is an example of how China can really help in improving current international financial systems.
A stable world order depends, in the first place, on whether China and the US can trust each other. In spite of talks at all levels and direct communication links, the biggest issue between the two countries is still trust. China is not convinced that the US can accommodate a socialist country, while the US believes a stronger China is determined to drive it out of the Western Pacific.
For many in China, no matter how the US changes its tone, America’s rebalance toward Asia is at least because of China and at worst against China. The latest efforts of the US – trying to dissuade its allies from joining the AIIB – doesn’t assure China of the US’ “good intention” either. Indeed the Sino-US relationship will never be void of twists and turns, but the best hope is it will be manageable, rather than confrontational.
If China’s sense of insecurity has subsided, then a question arises: Can the People’s Liberation Army, the largest armed forces in the world, contribute to maintaining the world order? “Going out” is no longer a buzzword for the PLA, as it was a few years ago. It is a given, and there is no recoil. The PLA Navy is at the forefront. Spearheaded by counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden since 2009, its operations overseas are becoming more sophisticated and frequent. It could have never envisioned before 2009 that one day it would be tasked to escort ships loaded with chemical weapons out of Syria or to provide freshwater to the Maldivians. PLA naval vessels have appeared in the Gulf of Guinea and the Sunda Strait too.
Nevertheless, the PLA’s ambition is limited: help the world rather than “save” the world. This echoes China’s official statement that China would shoulder its due responsibilities in line with its national strength. The PLA has no ambition of establishing global presence. Hitherto, its missions overseas are humanitarian in nature, be it peacekeeping, counter-piracy, humanitarian aid, disaster relief or evacuation of people. In the Indian Ocean, the PLA Navy has managed to blend China’s national interests with its international responsibilities. It doesn’t escort Chinese ships only, but foreign ships as well. While evacuating Chinese nationals from Yemen recently, the PLA Navy also evacuated more than 279 foreigners from 15 countries.
The last thing the PLA wants is to be seen as “world police”. But this doesn’t mean it cannot cooperate with the West in common areas. In fact, the PLA’s external relations extend to more than 150 countries. The Chinese naval task forces have worked in tandem with the naval forces of European Union countries to escort ships for the World Food Program. Its medical resources are shared with navies from more than 20 countries in fighting piracy. It is even discussing technical possibilities of mutual refueling with the EU and NATO.
In human history, a unipolar world never existed, a bi-polar world only survived shortly and a multipolar world is often the reality. Seventy years after the end of WWII, the world has gone through the vicissitudes of the Cold War, the independence of colonial countries, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the rise of China. Each of these has fundamentally shaped the world order. If indeed the rise of China is the most important event of the 21 century, the message from the Tian’anmen Square parade is clear: The PLA can help to make the world a safer place.
The author is an honorary fellow with Center of China-American Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science, PLA, China.