Needless assertion of power and pride

Needless assertion of power and pride

The Straits Times says

China's spectacular military parade was meant to exorcise some ghosts as well as build a new narrative of itself. Touted as a commemoration of the end of World War II, few were in doubt that President Xi Jinping was trying to stare down Japan, because of whom China endured great humiliation during the war. Irritatingly for Beijing, it now resists China's regional overlordship. By parading its soldiers in Tiananmen Square - venue of the brutal suppression of student protests in 1989 that put China in the global doghouse - Mr Xi also signalled that his nation is now meeting the world on its own terms. Also, this was an opportunity to assert his authority over the military. He had recently promoted many holding senior ranks to acquire new loyalties and cement old ones.

Infrequent as China's military parades are, this one drew attention, though not much attendance. Notable attendees were the leaders of Russia, Kazakhstan and South Korea. Other nations like the United States and India, which fought alongside China in the war, were absent or had a cursory presence. Not surprisingly, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declined to go. Mr Xi, who is due in Washington, DC later this month, presumably used the anti-ship missiles and other long-range rockets he displayed to show that he didn't like being pushed around in the South China Sea, where US reconnaissance planes routinely inspect islands that Beijing has filled out and claim as its own. Unexpectedly, and perhaps not coincidentally, the People's Liberation Army Navy showed up for the first time in the Bering Strait, a waterway near Alaska, as US President Barack Obama visited the area this week.

China's approach stands out in stark contrast to that of the Europeans and Americans who mark Victory in Europe Day with solemn remembrances and pledges to avoid repeating the folly of war. Beijing's sabre-rattling will strike many not just as inappropriate but also unnecessarily assertive of its newfound power and pride. The world is fully aware that its military power is set to rise - IHS Jane's this week projected its military budget to reach US$260 billion (S$368 billion) by the end of the decade, against US$190 billion this year. Against that, the Japanese and Indian defence budgets look decidedly small. While China's eyes might be fixed on the US, the more it spends on its security, the more it makes its neighbours feel insecure.

Beijing has to surrender some of its swagger as the financial bears tear into its stock markets and its economy stumbles. This will make Mr Xi's meeting with Mr Obama later this month a little fraught. Can the leader of a nation whose economy is in such distress demand a new model of Big Power relations? Ordinary Chinese, increasingly vexed about the sliding economy, may well wonder if their leader is better off mending things on the home front. All would benefit if Beijing turns some of its impressive swords into ploughshares.

This article was first published on September 5, 2015.
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