(Ng Han Guan ~ Associated Press)
The military display is expected to be the centerpiece of a parade through Beijing on Oct. 1 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. A preview rumbled through the Chinese capital a week ago, giving an excited citizenry and foreign military analysts a first-time glimpse at some cutting-edge weaponry.
Upgraded intercontinental DF-31 nuclear missiles capable of striking Washington rolled on long-bed trucks along with advanced short-range DF-11 and DF-15 missiles, sea-skimming YJ-83 anti-ship missiles and DH-10 long-range cruise missiles -- intended to strike targets in rival Taiwan. Not seen in the preview but expected to appear in a flyover above Tiananmen Square are domestically produced J-10 jet fighters.
The advanced equipment is the fruit of a 20-year military buildup fueled by annual double-digit percentage increases in defense spending and buoyed by rapid economic growth that has enabled the government to spend lavishly.
The Communist leadership's willingness to put so much equipment on public display reflects its growing faith in the People's Liberation Army's capabilities and its belief that the defense muscle will translate into new strength for Beijing internationally.
"The exercise is aimed at not only showing the Chinese people some of the symbols of China's new great power status, but also showing foreigners that policies based on the presumption of Chinese weakness must be changed," said Denny Roy, an expert on the Chinese military at Hawaii's East-West Center.
Chief among Beijing's targets is U.S. support for Taiwan, the self-governing island that China considers its own territory, and the American military's continued naval and airborne surveillance missions off the Chinese coast, Roy said. Japan, Vietnam and other nations with territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China and East China Seas are also likely audiences for the display of Chinese military might.
Officially, Beijing says the parade is nothing more than a move to boost patriotism and showcase the PLA's modernization drive -- an explanation that fits with the oft-repeated government line that the Chinese military buildup poses no threat to others. Chinese defense spending officially reached $71 billion this year, though analysts believe the actual figure is much higher. The spending is second to the U.S. but a fraction of American defense spending.
The parade will "demonstrate the positive image of China as a country seeking peaceful development," Senior Col. Guo Zhigang, a deputy commander of the event's training camp, was quoted as saying by the official China Daily newspaper.
Aside from armaments, the parade will feature thousands of goose-stepping troops from the PLA and the People's Armed Police, a paramilitary force whose mission is to quell domestic unrest, as they did in Tibet last year and Xinjiang this summer. President Hu Jintao is expected to review the assembled marchers, standing in an open-top Red Flag limousine as his predecessors have.
Still, the event marks a profound change from past decades when China shrouded its relative military weakness in secrecy. Despite being the world's largest standing military with 2.3 million members, the PLA was long derided as underequipped and underfunded. For decades, its plans to invade Taiwan, when Beijing had little air or naval power, were mocked as the "million-man swim."
The paraded armaments will further feed into an ongoing reassessment of Chinese military capabilities in Washington and other capitals, which began noticing the more muscular PLA earlier this decade. Aside from the hundreds of tanks, armored personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery featured in last week's rehearsal, the plethora of missiles on display represented some of Beijing's most advanced and potent weaponry, analysts said.
The anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles are capable of striking U.S. Navy aircraft carrier battle groups and bases in the Pacific, said Russell Smith, a former Australian defense attache in Beijing and an analyst with Jane's.
Among the less flashy but significant equipment likely to appear are those that give the PLA the ability to operate far from home, something it has never had before. Expected in the flyover are Kongjing airborne warning and control planes that gather and send intelligence to forces and Hong-6 bombers and tankers that would allow Chinese fighters to refuel while in flight for longer-range missions.
"Obviously, Taiwan and Japan are going to feel this, and perhaps even U.S. forces in Guam, Okinawa, and perhaps even Hawaii," said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Foreign nations need not be unduly alarmed by these new capabilities, but should "at least be very, very watchful," Bitzinger said.