TOKYO -- China appears to be planning a military parade in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, or what it calls Victory over Japan Day.
Although the government has not made any official announcements, local media reports suggest preparations are underway for the Sept. 3 event.
Platform for prestige
After a long lull amid social upheaval caused in part by the Cultural Revolution, the practice of military parades in the Chinese capital was revived on Oct. 1, 1984, to commemorate the 35th anniversary of National Day, modern China's foundation day.
That parade was reviewed by the chairman of the Communist Party's Central Military Commission, Deng Xiaoping, even though Hu Yaobang was the party's highest-ranking official at the time -- a sign that Deng was the country's real leader.
The next military parade in Beijing was on the 50th anniversary of the foundation day in 1999. This time, it was overseen by President Jiang Zemin, who was also general secretary of the party and chairman of the military commission.
The 60th anniversary parade, in 2009, was reviewed by Hu Jintao, who held the same three positions as Jiang.
It would be natural to assume that the next parade will be on Oct. 1, 2019. But President Xi Jinping's administration appears to have decided on Sept. 3 this year. Further setting the parade apart from its predecessors are reports that the government will invite foreign leaders for the first time.
The decision was undoubtedly politically motivated. The People's Daily -- the Communist Party's official mouthpiece -- offered clues as to what motivated the break from precedent. In an article on its website the newspaper said the parade is intended to demonstrate China's military might; make Japan tremble and show the world China's resolve to protect the postwar global order; and heighten national pride.
Because the People's Daily positions itself as the "throat and tongue" of the Communist Party, the expression "make Japan tremble" is nothing but a parroting of the Xi administration's words.
Although the words constitute a threat against Japan, it is uncertain just how serious Beijing is about acting on them. Perhaps the expression was used to justify the decision to move up the date of the parade.
Military parades in Beijing have typically been used as a vehicle to boost the prestige of top leaders. More specifically, they aim to demonstrate to China and the world that the leaders have full control of the military.
It is not a stretch, then, to think that Xi decided to speed up the schedule because he is keen to quickly build up his prestige. In other words, he is trying to use Japan to reinforce his power base.
Japan as villain
The bellicose phrase also suggests Beijing wants to use Japan for another purpose.
The leadership has been promoting a strategy to gradually change the international order through such measures as expanding its control in the South China Sea. By insinuating that Japan is trying to change the postwar global order, China apparently wants to suggest that it stands on the side of protecting the status quo.
A military parade impressive enough to rattle Japan would also unsettle other countries. And even if Japan responds with a shrug, it is likely that other Asian countries will still be spooked.
Beijing's real targets may in fact be Vietnam and the Philippines, which are in disputes with China over islands in the South China Sea, and Taiwan, which is slated to hold a presidential election in 2016.
Signs of thawing tension between China and Japan emerged in November, when the countries announced a four-point agreement on crisis management and then followed that up with a summit. And since then, the two sides have worked on developing crisis-management mechanisms based on the agreement.
But these factors alone are not sufficient cause for optimism.