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World & Nation

Who’s who (and who isn’t) at China’s big parade

Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at Beijing Capital International Airport on Sept. 2 to attend China’s massive military parade.

(Wu Hong / European Pressphoto Agency)

Dozens of foreign heads of state will descend on Beijing to witness this week’s massive military parade, a 90-minute spectacle on Thursday morning to mark the 70th anniversary of imperial Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II.

Yet ironically, relatively few of them come from countries that helped defeat Japan.

Representatives from 49 countries are scheduled to attend the event, including an estimated 30 heads of state, 19 “high-ranking government officials,” 10 heads of international organizations, and 100 “foreign war heroes,” according to China’s state news service. Among them are Russian President Vladimir Putin, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Yet many Western heads of state -- including those from the United States and Britain -- have declined their invitations. Several countries, including Canada and the United States, are sending only their ambassadors to China. Germany is sending its former chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, while Britain dispatched former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Czech Republic President Milos Zeman is the only head of state from the European Union set to attend.

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“The fact that the Western-North Atlantic guest list is so slim shows that these powers are concerned by the parade as an endorsement of China’s growing military strength, and my guess is that this has overwhelmed the historic element of the commemoration,” said Rana Mitter, an expert on Chinese history at the University of Oxford.

Thursday’s military parade will be China’s fourth since 1960 and its first to mark the end of World War II -- others have all fallen on the anniversary of Mao Tse-tung’s declaration of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It is to feature 12,000 troops, 500 tanks and scores of planes and missiles traveling along one of Beijing’s main thoroughfares; state media have claimed that 84% of the hardware on display has never been seen by the public.

China’s neighbors will be watching closely. The country has grown increasingly aggressive about asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea and the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, ratcheting up tensions with Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and the U.S.

“It’s pretty plain that the Chinese leadership wants to convey an image of China as a very powerful 21st century state that is not to be messed with,” said Rory Medcalf, head of the national security college at Australian National University. “The problem is that this may also be seen as a show of coercive capability as well as a show of defensive capability.”

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Many foreign analysts were surprised by the inclusion of two prominent South Koreans -- Ban and Park -- on the parade’s guest list but the absence of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. China is North Korea’s only major ally.

“I think that [Kim’s absence] reflects the fact that relations between China and North Korea have not been good since Kim Jong Un took power a few years ago,” said Timothy Heath, a senior research analyst at the Rand Corp. who focuses on international defense. “[Chinese President Xi Jinping] has not yet met Kim Jong Un, and the Chinese have been consistently distancing themselves from North Korea’s behavior.”

For many Western countries, Heath added, the “menacing tone of the event is underscored by the attendance of Russian President Putin, the only leader of a great power who shares with Xi Jinping a determination to push back against the U.S. and its allies.”

Further underscoring China’s awkward position in the international order, Xi met with Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir on Friday and called him an “old friend,” despite his status as a war criminal throughout much of the world. The Hague-based International Criminal Court issued warrants for his arrest in 2009 and 2010 on 10 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for overseeing a campaign of mass killing in the Darfur region.

“You are an old friend of the Chinese people,” Xi told Bashir, according to the Reuters news agency. “China and Sudan are like two brothers that are also good friends and partners. Mr. Bashir coming to China shows our partnership is strong.”

“The people of Africa, including Sudan, made an important contribution in the victory in the World Anti-Fascist War [China’s official term for World War II],” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing, according to Reuters. “China’s invite to President Bashir to the commemoration activities is reasonable and fair.”

Sudan gained independence from a joint British and Egyptian government in 1956, 11 years after the end of World War II.

According to state media, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Mongolia, Pakistan, Serbia, Tajikistan and Russia have sent troops to participate in the parade.

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Roger Cliff, author of the forthcoming book “China’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities” and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, noted that China’s last military parade, in 2009, was surprisingly “colorful” and “sort of friendly.”

“Even though it was a military parade, it wasn’t a very ominous or a threatening one, in my opinion,” he said. “So it will be interesting to see if the same tone comes through this time. … Are they sending the message that this is a nice military that’s here to help? Or are they sending the message that this is a big, gnarly, mean, tough military that will bop you over the head if you try to get in their way? I think that will be an interesting thing to see.”

Follow @JRKaiman on Twitter for news from Asia.

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