No-shows likely for China’s World War II parade amid rising tensions with West


In a region where many of the wounds from World War II are still raw, China’s plans for a giant parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its victory are creating diplomatic and political dilemmas for the United States and its allies in the region.

The Sept. 3 event is proving a rerun of the awkwardness that accompanied the military and nationalist display put on by Russian President Vladimir Putin this year to mark the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany: a parade through Red Square that President Obama and many top European leaders skipped.

Despite Beijing’s rising clout as an economic and military power, Chinese officials are having a hard time getting world leaders to agree to show up for the celebrations. The ceremony has come to represent the growing ideological battle between a China on the rise and a West fearful of the Asian nation’s growing military might.

Heavy construction in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square has been underway for months as Chinese soldiers train for the parade in the capital’s suburbs. The main roads have been reinforced with explosive-proof materials, and the famous square’s gate is being repainted for what will be Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first military parade since taking power in 2012.

“I think a lot of these Chinese ceremonies these days are really intended to highlight the fact that they want to be seen and respected as a great power, and that’s a great portion of what this is about,” said Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

China suffered horrendous losses during the war, starting with Japan’s invasion in 1937 and including a civil war that erupted after the Japanese surrender in 1945. An estimated 15 million to 20 million Chinese soldiers and civilians died in the fighting, second only to the losses suffered by the Soviet Union.

The parade also is being planned amid new tensions between China and Japan, Asia’s other economic superpower, and between China and many of its neighbors over Beijing’s aggressive moves to stake its claim to sovereignty in the heavily trafficked South China Sea.

“There will be unease with being seen as playing a role in supporting Xi Jinping during a time in which he has introduced much more assertive foreign policy than many had been anticipating,” Nick Bisley, a professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Australia, recently told the South China Morning Post.

Adding to the awkwardness is the staging of the parade at the site of the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square that the communist government brutally suppressed.

Chinese officials are touting the parade as in part a tribute to the victims of what they refer to as “Japanese aggression” during World War II, reviving memories of Japan’s wartime occupation of the country.

China, along with U.S. ally South Korea, continues to condemn Japanese leaders for not fully acknowledging or making amends for their country’s actions during the war, which has plagued Sino-Japanese relations for decades. Beijing said it has invited Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but Tokyo has yet to confirm his attendance.

Western wariness

Western officials also are concerned about the political implications of embracing the parade, which is expected to showcase China’s prolific military capabilities and feature Mr. Putin with his own entourage of military leaders and soldiers. Mr. Xi was the most prominent foreign leader to attend Russia’s parade this year.

Western leaders humiliated Mr. Putin when a majority of them boycotted Moscow’s Victory Day parade in May over the Russian president’s aggression in Ukraine. Chinese officials, worried that they could face a similar boycott, have been scrambling to persuade foreign dignitaries to attend as event organizers ramp up preparations with one month to go.

Mr. Putin, who has pursued closer ties with Beijing amid worsening relations with the United States and the European Union, is one of the few world leaders who have agreed to attend China’s parade.

The Chinese Defense Ministry says many countries “will send personnel to participate in or observe the parade,” but it has refused to acknowledge which countries have confirmed their attendance besides Russia and Mongolia.

Western leaders, wary of associating with Mr. Putin and fueling anti-Japanese sentiment, appear unlikely to be on that list.

“We want the region to get past [World War II] so the region can realize its full potential as a driver of global growth,” President Obama’s former Asia adviser Evan Medeiros said in April. “We think that the more countries in the region that take that kind of constructive approach and let history be history, but be mindful of it, the better off the region will be in terms of its ability to cooperate.”

The U.S. has given no word on whether any officials will attend the parade or even whether they are invited. But with the highly anticipated visit of Mr. Xi to Washington in September, an Obama no-show could spur criticism in Beijing, Mr. Manning said.

“I don’t expect Obama to go, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent Vice President Joe Biden or [Secretary of State] John Kerry. I think the concern in the White House is, ‘Do we want to appear to snub China?'” Mr. Manning said.

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed that they would not attend. The British Defense Ministry said it has not decided whom it will send to represent the United Kingdom, The Wall Street Journal reported. Top EU leaders are also unlikely to attend, said Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, the European Union’s ambassador to China.

Although Beijing is expected to flaunt its military prowess in the parade, Chinese officials insist that the purpose of the celebration is not political.

“The goal [of the parade] is to show that China and the people of the world have the capability and determination to defend world peace,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. “It is not to flex muscles for anyone.”

If the parade isn’t meant for political advantage, officials in Taiwan haven’t gotten the message.

On July 4, Taiwan staged a parade featuring thousands of troops, heavy war artillery and Apache helicopters to claim credit for ousting Japanese occupiers during World War II. Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist party ruled China during the war but relocated to the small East Asian island after China’s communist forces took over the mainland.

“The war of resistance was led by the Republic of China, and Chairman Chiang Kai-shek was the force behind it,” Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou said in reference to the former KMT leader. “No one is allowed to distort that.”

Chinese parade organizers, however, won’t leave out their South Asian counterparts in the celebrations. Qu Rui, deputy director of the parade steering group office, has invited KMT veterans to the event, acknowledging the “important role” KMT troops played during the war.