China’s military displayed new equipment at a parade in central Beijing to mark 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic, including hypersonic-glide missiles experts say could be difficult for the United States to counter.
In a speech at the nearly three-hour, tightly choreographed spectacle, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country would stay on the path of “peaceful development” with the military resolutely safeguarding sovereignty and security.
China said the parade, the country’s most important annual political event, featured more than 15000 troops marching through Tiananmen Square as jet fighters trailing coloured smoke soared overhead, is not meant to intimidate.
Defence experts see it as a message to the world that China’s military prowess is growing rapidly, even as it faces mounting challenges, including anti-government protests in Hong Kong and a slowing economy.
As expected, China unveiled new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and showcased advanced inter-continental and hypersonic missiles, designed to attack aircraft carriers and bases marking US military strength in Asia.
A state television announcer called the missile arsenal a “force for realising the dream of a strong nation and strong military.”
Among the weapons were the “carrier killer” Dongfeng-21D (DF-21D), unveiled in 2015, designed to hit warships at up to 1 500 kilometres and the DF-26 intermediate range missile, dubbed “Guam killer” in reference to the US Pacific island base.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rolled out a hypersonic missile, the DF-17, which theoretically can manoeuvre sharply at many times the speed of sound, making it difficult to counter.
Nozomu Yoshitomi, professor at Japan’s Nihon University and a retired major general in Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Force, said the DF-17 posed serious questions about the effectiveness of the regional missile defence system the United States and Japan are building.
“If we do not acquire a more sophisticated ballistic missile defence system it will become impossible for the United States and Japan to respond,” Yoshitomi said.
At the rear of the parade were 16 upgraded launchers carrying DF-41 inter-continental ballistic missiles, the backbone of China’s nuclear deterrent and capable of reaching the United States with multiple nuclear warheads.
State media said 40% of the arms shown in the parade were appearing in public for the first time. Hardware included new and revamped versions of missiles, such as the long-range submarine-launched and ship-based YJ-18A anti-ship cruise missiles, the official Xinhua news agency said.
China has a practice of only displaying systems in parades it says have entered service, though analysts caution some the new equipment could be experimental or prototype.
For instance, the Gongji-11, described by state-controlled Global Times as an attack drone and the “final version” of the Sharp Sword drone that first flew in 2013, was displayed for the first time on the back of a truck.
China showed jets in aerial refuelling formation and the Z-20 medium lift helicopter, similar to the. UH-60 Black Hawk, also made its public debut, Xinhua said.
Many modern Western militaries eschew elaborate, large-scale military parades as costly extravagances and argue such events have no value for war beyond a possible boost to morale.
Still, governments and foreign military experts watched the parade for signals about China’s military achievements, seeking clues about weapon capabilities and evidence of new systems.
The government of self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its territory, said in response to the parade China was a serious threat to peace and democracy.
As a part of what Chinese military officials said would be a focus on command structure reforms under Xi’s ambitious military reorganisation, hundreds of personnel from the PLA’s new Joint Logistics Support Force, Strategic Support Force and Rocket Force marched in national day parade debuts.
Xinhua said there were two female major generals in the parade for the first time.
Analysts see progress in combined operations between branches of the military and in mechanising forces as a shift in priorities from defending Chinese borders toward expeditionary forces able to defend far-flung commercial and diplomatic interests.
Many said the show of force was a reminder to the United States and its allies of how far the PLA has come.
Sam Roggeveen, director of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute’s International Security Programme, said the pace of China’s military technological development was “breathtaking” and with defence spending thought to be around two percent of GDP, “they’re not breaking a sweat.”
“The message is pretty blunt. It dramatically erodes the US military edge in Asia and over the long-term, America’s military primacy in Asia is under threat,” Roggeveen said.