Military Capabilities

China military parade all about signaling

03 September 2015
China's Wing Loong medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned vehicle on display in the 3 September 2015 military parade. Credit: PA

Key points:

  • What this parade does is confirm Chinese internet-sourced imagery that has been the basis for most open source analysis in recent years.
  • The parade is all about signalling – both to international and domestic audiences of China’s strength and invulnerability.
  • The context of this parade is different compared to the last one in 2009. The US and China are engaged in fairly overt strategic competition in the Asia-Pacific region at the moment, and Chinese power projection via this or other military equipment is not playing too well with its neighbours.
  • The big things that are missing from this parade, with it being in Beijing, are China’s major advances in naval equipment. That’s where China is really changing the balance of power in Asia.

China has invested heavily in missile systems for some years now – it has a range of ballistic and cruise missiles that would seriously complicate any US response to a Taiwan invasion scenario or a crisis around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. That much has been known for quite a while, what this parade does is put it all in one place and confirm Chinese internet-sourced imagery that has been the basis for most open source analysis in recent years.

The parade is all about signaling – both to international and domestic audiences of China’s strength and invulnerability, although state media has been publishing some fairly Orwellian op-eds on how ‘peace loving peoples’ will welcome this display of military equipment. In that sense it is no different to previous parades (the most recent similar one was in 2009) but of course the context is different. The US and China are engaged in fairly overt strategic competition in the Asia-Pacific region at the moment, and Chinese power projection via this or other military equipment is not playing too well with its neighbours.

The big things that are missing from this parade, what with it being in Beijing, are China’s major advances in naval equipment. That’s where China is really changing the balance of power in Asia. In that context, the anti-ship missiles on display are of most interest, but another platform to look out for is the J-15 carrier-based fighter. That is based on Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, and a group of them will be doing a fly-by.

The way in which information leaks through the web and the other tools at our disposal (satellite imagery analysis, etc) and the relative openness of China now (when compared to countries such as North Korea, for example) means that this parade is not as important to defence analysts as similar parades in the past. A lot of the systems have been leaked out on Chinese websites (weibo, fansites, etc) in recent years. That said, it is reassuring when the kit turns up on a parade – it serves to justify and reinforce the value of using those sources and sites for analysis (which sometimes feels like looking through a glass, darkly). Similarly, the signaling (both the military kit and the attempt to justify it as peaceful by state media) – that’s certainly of interest too as China is rather trying to have its cake and eat it too.



(529 words)
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