Just one day after China's V-Day parade was held under auspiciously azure skies, smog rolled back over Beijing, as if a reminder of the evanescence of great power. George Orwell wrote that 'he who controls the past controls the future.' China's parade was not only about a remembered past; it is signaling to the world its narrative for the future.
'Awe and Peace' newspapers blared, with detailed coverage of the missile procession. The ceremony was a personal triumph for President Xi Jinping and an exquisite exercise in offensive realism. China wants peace by making Asia safe for itself. Outside interference is not welcome.
The message of deterrence was sent to – and received by – the US. The missiles highlight the danger the US Navy faces, especially given the first-strike emphasis of such systems: they are valuable in surprise, more vulnerable thereafter. 'Bide and hide' could become 'use or lose.' On the morning of the parade, a flotilla of PLAN ships sailed inside Alaskan waters. Weeks before Xi's visit to Washington, this was bold signaling.
If America was the parade's target, Japan was its object.
China's grievance with Japan grows more acute with the passage of time. The curation of wartime memory is becoming ever more detailed and gruesome, with the Communists growingly prominent in victory. There is a strong sense abroad that both China and Japan have failed to reconcile honestly. Tokyo is anxious about Beijing's return to bygones; now it fears the future. Japan specialist Sheila Smith powerfully summarises:
'Elites are faced with a loss of confidence in their ability to solve problems with China… Some issues of contention will be about . . . history. But it is today's China that is eroding Japan's confidence in the way it has pursued its interests during the postwar period. All the premises of Tokyo's choices are being challenged by Beijing: its reliance on international economic and political institutions to resolve disputes, its commitment to an open and liberal global economic order, and its alliance with the United States . . . more and more Japanese see China challenging not only Japan but also the global order that Japanese see as the foundation of their postwar success.'
Vladimir Putin stood as guest of honor at the parade. Thoughtful Russians question why their leader indulges in a Chinese rendering of Japan's defeat that distorts and diminishes official Russian history. Although the Soviet and Chinese peoples suffered calamitously in World War Two, both the USSR and the Chinese communists had relatively minor, opportunistic engagements against Japan itself.
Nonetheless Putin is a practical man. The Russia expert Bobo Lo remarks that his 'self-satisfaction appears stronger than ever, driven by the illusory anticipation of a new multipolar order in which Russia stands equal with the United States and China' yet wonders whether in Moscow's kto-kogo (who beats whom?) conception of geopolitics, 'does Putin's confident exterior mask mounting insecurities about the rise of China?' Certainly, 'there is discomfort, not about the gravity or immediacy, but the elusiveness of the challenges posed by China's rise', but this is overridden by 'Russian fear of ending up on the wrong side of the strategic triangle – as occurred in the 1980s.'
Another esteemed Russia watcher, Walter Laquer asks: 'Assuming . . . that Russia is now at the peak of its strength, should it not make the most of it? What if such a special opportunity does not recur?' He quotes the mainstream nationalist intellectual Sergey Karaganov, who has no doubt that Russia already is declining:
'It looks like Russia has deliberately shifted the focus of competition with the West from soft power and the economic sector to hard power, political will, and intellect . . . to where Russia considers its strength lies . . . (but this) strategy will weaken Russia's position in relations with China [its maneuvering room will narrow]. This will be the case if Moscow will not lose, of course . . . '
He leaves unsaid what alternative awaits. Karaganov's unease at Putin's 'triumphalism' is revealing. He is concerned about Russia over-playing its hand, of feigning great strength when it lacks. China is a rising and confident nation. Japan is declining and anxious. Russia is confident but declining. In the world political system, which type of state is likely to be the most dangerous actor? Various theories of international relations point in different directions.
The juxtaposition with Japan and Russia here is deliberate. Of course it's the Sino-American relationship which commands most attention. Because China believes its return to great power is inevitable, it may act with restraint, knowing time is on its side. Americans too have a strong sense of destiny. So mutual self-confidence might be stabilising for Sino-American relations – or it might not be.
But one thing is for sure: though increasingly rivals, they are playing different games. Their economic, political and military institutions are totally unalike. Instead China is a Russo-Japanese hybrid, a supercentralised Leninist one-party state atop an investment, credit and export intensive tiger economy. As China parades confidently into the future, signaling its ambition to the world, its leaders will reflect on the fragile fates of both the Soviet-Russian political system and Japan's economic model, on whose templates it has built its foundations.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Patrick Rodwell.