Gone are the days when National Day parades in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square meant a crowd of one million, clad in red, marching and swaying its arms in eerily perfect unison to Communist Party songs.
Next week, Tiananmen Square will host military drones, satellite launchers and new radar systems, reflecting the transition of China’s armed forces from a lumbering, unwieldy military unit, one that was “lax and bloated” in former leader Deng Xiaoping’s words, to a sleeker, more high-tech outfit.
The People’s Liberation Army will hold its first military parade in a decade on October 1, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The parade will showcase the PLA’s transition “from manpower to science and technology,” said Major General Gao Jianguo, a military spokesman, on Wednesday. To the interest of military-watchers in India and elsewhere, the rare parade will for the first time showcase 52 new indigenous weapons systems. On display will be new home-made Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), five new missiles including the intercontinental ballistic DF-31 and a nuclear missile, as well as new radar and satellite systems.
Defence analysts say China is using the parade to send a strong message, both home and abroad, about the army’s new capabilities.
“This is kind of a display of conventional deterrence to tell adversaries ‘We have these in our stock, so be careful’,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, chairman of the Centre for East Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University and an expert on China’s armed forces.
Following the Gulf War in 1991 and the war in Afghanistan in 2001, China’s leaders stressed the need to improve its military’s co-ordination and transition from mechanised warfare to Information Warfare (IW). “This means more IW platforms, space-based systems and UAVs,” said Mr. Kondapalli. “Unlike mechanised warfare, IW provides for the seamless availability of information, better co-ordinates different sections and makes a military force more effective.”
Liang Guanglie, China’s Defence Minister, said this week the army hoped to complete this process by 2020. He also said he believed China’s weapons-systems now “matched” the West’s, and the country would launch a three-step plan to upgrade weapons systems next year.
Showcasing the new weapons systems would serve two purposes: displaying the military’s prowess “to build national sentiment” at home and sending a message abroad of the army’s capabilities, said Brigadier Arun Sahgal of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.
“To the U.S., the message is that we are fast bridging the technological gap,” he said. “To major Asian powers, namely India and Japan, there is a coercive context in terms of conventional and strategic asymmetry.” The Indian Army, Mr. Kondapalli added, will be keenly watching. “At a subterranean level, there is an arms race between the two countries,” he said. “This is not said outwardly, but if China acquires something, India has to acquire a counterpart.”
October 1 will also feature the more traditional elements of a National Day parade. Several thousand school children will perform with flowers, 60,000 doves will be released into Beijing’s skies and 5,000 soldiers will conduct a march past, most likely to the tune of Communist Party revolutionary anthems from the 1950’s. .