China will hold one of its biggest ever military parades on Tuesday as part of its celebrations for 70 years of Communist Party rule, and Beijing is promising to show off a host of new home-grown weaponry.
What equipment might we see on display, and why does China now have the second biggest military budget in the world?
What is planned for 1 October?
The military parade – part of a huge day of celebrations – will take place in Tiananmen Square in front of officials, selected members of the public, and 188 military attaches from 97 countries.
A defence ministry spokesman recently said China had no intention or need to “flex its muscles” with this display, but that the focus was on demonstrating a “peace-loving and responsible China”. Nevertheless, the sheer enormity of this parade has generated both admiration and scorn.
The Ministry of National Defence has reported that 15,000 military personnel will be taking part, including 59 different elements of the military, while 580 pieces of military equipment will roll through the streets and 160 aircraft will fly overhead.
President Xi Jinping will review troops along Chang’an Avenue – Beijing’s major thoroughfare – and afterwards a number of foot, armour and aircraft formations will pass through or over Tiananmen Square.
For the first time, a contingent from China’s 8,000-strong UN peacekeeping standby force will participate.
What equipment are we going to see?
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is clearly excited about showcasing sophisticated new weapons platforms, all of which it says are already in active service.
PLA propagandists have placed particular emphasis on new missile, stealth and unmanned vehicle capabilities. Among the machinery we’re expecting to see are:
- The latest road-mobile DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which Chinese analysts say is able to target any part of the globe, will be unveiled. It is said to carry a warhead payload of 10 multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV). A MIRV warhead can be guided towards a specific target, so one could potentially hit 10 different targets over a wide area.
- Another ballistic missile system, the DF-17, said to be able to carry a hypersonic glide vehicle akin to Russia’s Avangard system. Such vehicles are able to manoeuvre evasively at incredibly high speeds in order to evade missile defence systems.
- More new missile systems including anti-ship, anti-aircraft and cruise missiles, as well as a new long-range multiple rocket launcher.
- Two unmanned aircraft, one a supersonic surveillance and targeting drone called the DR-8 and the other a stealthy batwing-shaped drone dubbed Sharp Sword, designed to be launched from aircraft carriers.
- Y-20 transport aircraft, J-20 stealth fighters and early warning and surveillance aircraft.
- The latest variant of China’s strategic bomber the H6-N – capable of in-flight refuelling and carrying air-launched ballistic missiles.
The PLA has emphasised that the parade will also demonstrate new levels of innovation from the domestic defence industry, and improved strike capability.
How much does China spend on its military?
Increases in China’s military spending have been remarkable, and have accelerated since Mr Xi announced major reforms in 2015.
Over the last decade, the defence budget grew by at least 10% every year – it now stands at $168.2bn (£136.9bn), the second largest in the world.
China is also by far Asia’s biggest defence investor, in 2018 spending $56.1bn in weapons procurement and defence research and development, just over 33% of China’s overall defence budget. A recent defence white paper called this “reasonable and appropriate” expenditure.
In tune with its emphasis on defence, China has downplayed such spending increases through comparisons to that of the US, which remains the biggest global defence spender by a considerable order of magnitude – a total of $643.3bn in 2018.
Beijing argues that despite being the world’s second largest economy, its defence spending was less than a quarter of that of the US in 2017, and works out at $100 per head of population – just 5% of that of the US.
How does China think it might need use its military?
China says it is building a “strong military” to match its international standing and narrow the gap with the world’s leading militaries.
A clue as to its motivations comes from that white paper, which at the outset accuses the US of provoking and intensifying competition among major countries, significantly increasing its defence expenditure, pushing for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defence, and undermining global strategic stability.
And right at the top of a list of security risks and challenges, the document describes the fight against separatists becoming more acute and Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s stubborn adherence to an independence agenda.
China considers Taiwan a breakaway province which will one day be brought back under mainland control – by force if necessary. Reunification is a central part of President Xi’s goal of “national rejuvenation”, also a key theme in the parade.
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With Taiwan’s presidential elections only three months away, the prevalence of ballistic missile systems and heavy emphasis on stealth and cutting-edge technologies at the parade will be a message of deterrence.
The parade will seek to demonstrate China’s determination to defend its core interests, including its disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea.
For example, the missile platforms could be used to defend the new naval and air bases built on reclaimed atolls in the Spratly Islands. China, in fact, live-fired anti-ship ballistic missiles into the South China Sea at the end of June.
These capabilities are believed to be part of China’s Anti-Access, Area Denial (A2AD) strategy, to prevent US access to the South China Sea.
Is China’s military close to rivalling the US?
One of the big differences with Tuesday, in contrast to the last big parade in Beijing in 2015, will be an air of celebration.
The V-day parade, marking the 70th anniversary of the victory over Japan in World War Two, was an altogether solemn affair. This parade on the contrary seeks to celebrate China’s achievements in terms of defence innovation and indigenous production.
The key message is that the PLA has truly moved into a new era – Xi Jinping’s new era – and that following far-reaching reforms, it is well positioned to advance towards becoming a truly modernised force by 2035 and world-class force by 2049.
However, while a lavish military parade may showcase the scale of its investment, it cannot portray the PLA’s overall military capability.
China’s need to improve its military salary structuring, integrated joint logistics and training regimes are all part of the mix. In addition, China’s ambitious military reform agenda involves a comprehensive and expensive overhaul of command and force structures.
Despite the eye-catching sophistication of the arsenal which will be paraded, the PLA is still many decades away from reaching military capability akin to that of the US.
Alexander Neill is a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.