BEIJING, July 30, (Agencies): Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed the need to build a world-class military, capable of “defeating all invading enemies” and loyal to the ruling Communist Party, at a major parade Sunday.
The event — featuring 12,000 service personnel and about 700 aircraft and pieces of ground equipment — marked the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), now the world’s largest military.
It was the first time Xi has observed a parade of this size staged in the field, according to the defence ministry.
Since coming to power in 2012, the president has trumpeted the need to build a stronger combat-ready military, while leading efforts to centralise the Communist Party’s control over it.
“The world is not all at peace. Peace must be safeguarded,” Xi, wearing a camouflage military uniform, said in a speech at the expansive Zhurihe training base in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. “Today we are closer than ever before to the goal of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and — more than any other time in history — we need to build a strong people’s military,” he said.
“I believe that our heroic army has the confidence and capability to defeat all invading enemies.”
Xi also ordered the PLA to “unswervingly stick to … the party’s absolute leadership”, saying the military should “march to wherever the party is pointing”.
Defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said in a statement that the parade was intended to create a “good atmosphere” before a crucial party congress later this year, at which Xi is expected to further consolidate his grip on power.
At Zhurihe, a base extending more than 1,000 square kilometres (386 square miles), rows upon rows of soldiers marched in perfect unison and helicopters flew overhead in a “90” formation.
The president stood in an open-top jeep that drove past ranks of troops for his inspection.
“Comrades, thanks for your hard work!” he said, to which the troops responded: “Serve the people!”
China announced in March it would raise its defence spending by around seven percent this year, the slowest annual percentage increase since 1991.
Beijing is engaged in a decades-long build-up and modernisation of its once-backward armed forces, as it seeks military clout commensurate with its economic might and increasingly asserts its disputed territorial claims in Asian waters.
Xi announced in 2015 that he would cut China’s military by 300,000 — though at its reduced size of around two million, it will still remain the world’s largest military.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also encompasses the navy and air force.
The PLA, originally called the Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, was founded in 1927 when Communist soldiers seized the southern town of Nanchang from Nationalist Party (“Kuomintang”) armies in what is known today as the Nanchang uprising.
Xi, who commands the People’s Liberation Army as chairman of the Central Military Commission, has frequently spoken of his “China Dream” to restore China to a leadership position in international affairs with a modern, far-reaching military force to match.
The forces addressed him as “Chairman Xi” as they rumbled past. The parade was blanketed by state media coverage and streamed for foreign audiences on YouTube, which is blocked inside China.
On display were advanced weaponry including a new Dongfeng-31AG variant of the nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile and the Dongfeng-21D “carrier killer.” Several H-6K bombers, the long-range aircraft recently involved in exercises near Japan and the South China Sea, were shown flying by overhead.
To reinforce his political position, Xi has extracted televised vows of loyalty from top generals while holding frequent events to show his affinity and support for the military, including a troop inspection in Hong Kong in June and a ceremony to present citations to 10 officers last week.
On Sunday, Xi issued another call for loyalty as he instructed his amassed 12,000 troops to “unswervingly stick to the fundamental principle and system of the party’s absolute leadership over the army,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
“Always listen to and follow the party’s orders,” Xi said. “And march to wherever the party points to.”
Unlike a massive 2015 parade through manicured central Beijing to mark 70 years since the end of World War Two, Sunday’s spectacle had fewer frills. Thousands of troop marched in combat garb, not dress uniforms, and vehicles kicked up clouds of dust as they rounded sections of the base’s track.
It was the first time China has marked Army Day, which formally falls on Aug 1, with a military parade since the Communist revolution in 1949, state news agency Xinhua said.
It was also the first time Xi has reviewed troops in the field like this, Xinhua added.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said in a statement that the location for the parade embodied a “dust-covered battlefield atmosphere” for the 12,000 troops who participated.
The country’s military is more nimble and technologically proficient following reforms to make it more compact and responsive, and less reliant on its sheer troop numbers, Xi said last week.
China has not fought a war in decades and the government insists it has no hostile intent, but simply needs the ability to properly defend what is now the world’s second-largest economy.
However, China has rattled nerves around Asia and globally with its increasingly assertive stance in the East and South China Seas and its military modernisation plan.
Some of the military reforms have also been controversial at home. Sources with ties to the military say Xi’s announcement at the 2015 parade to cut 300,000 troops has caused unease within the ranks.