China’s massive display of weaponry on the 70th anniversary on the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1 has kept military analysts busy evaluating the significance of the armaments they saw on their television screens.
Another visual from the celebration, however, was largely overlooked but arguably equally as eye-popping: Hundreds of foreign military personnel taking celebratory part in a major People’s Liberation Army (PLA) parade in Beijing.
While the arsenal on display aimed to show the world that China is capable of challenging America’s military dominance in the Asia-Pacific region and perhaps beyond, the foreign forces showed Beijing has cultivated new committed allies at a time competition with the US has reached a fever pitch.
Varying in size from a handful to company-strength columns, soldiers from 16 countries marched across Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Flying their respective national flags, they marked in formation in alphabetical order alongside their Chinese soldier counterparts.
There were contingents from core allies such as Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and neighboring Mongolia. But there were also foreign soldiers from nations located along the tracks of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a US$1 trillion infrastructure project designed to connect China to the wider world.
From Central Asia and the Indian Ocean region, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan all sent marching troops. Southeast Asia was represented by smaller columns of soldiers from Cambodia and Laos. Fiji and from Vanuatu represented the South Pacific.
While no sub-Saharan African nation took part, Egypt, the guardian of the Suez Canal, sent servicemen representatives to the parade. Serbia was Europe’s lone participant, while Mexico, in a clear message to the US, likewise sent its troops to Beijing.
(Conspicuously absent among China’s allies was North Korea, whose participation likely would have been too controversial given the hermit nuclear state’s current status as an international pariah.)
“No force can force the Chinese people and the nation from marching forward,” Xi declared in his October 1 speech, underscoring China’s drive to expand its influence and power across the globe.
The BRI is the centerpiece of that outward thrust and many participating nations symbolically sent ceremonial troops to the big parade.
While not necessarily taking strategic sides with China, the optics of foreign and Chinese troops marching side-by-side were telling at a time the US and China ramp up competition for allies and influence.
In Southeast Asia, China’s top allies and BRI beneficiaries sent their troops. A high-speed railroad connecting China’s southwestern province of Yunnan to the Lao capital of Vientiane is under construction and scheduled to begin service in December 2021.
Whether it will eventually connect with a new line through Thailand to Bangkok and southward to Malaysia and Singapore remains an open question. While all three Southeast Asian nations maintain cordial and robust economic ties with China, none opted to send their troops to the parade.
Cambodia, where Chinese interests are investing heavily in the port city of Sihanoukville and the two sides are quickly developing strategic ties, sent a small, symbolic contingent of its soldiers.
But there is much in strategic play in Cambodia. According to a July 21 Wall Street Journal report quoting unnamed US officials, China has secured a 30-year exclusive access agreement to a naval base in Cambodia. The Cambodian government has denied the report, saying it’s against the country’s constitution to allow foreign forces on its soil.
But, as Asia Times reported on July 22, “a Chinese naval presence in Southeast Asia would be a strategic game-changer, potentially giving China a new southern flank advantage in its escalating contest for power vis-à-vis the US and its allies in the South China Sea.”
In the South Pacific, several Chinese naval vessels, including Yuan Wang 5 and Yuan Wang 7 spacecraft tracking ships, have used Fiji’s port of Suva to resupply. Chinese aid to Fiji sky-rocketed after a 2006 military coup that saw Western donors shy away and demand the restoration of democracy.
In February 2009, at a time when Fiji was being criticized for its human-rights record, Xi, then vice president, paid an official visit to the island nation. Vanuatu, also strategically located in the Pacific Ocean and a close Chinese ally, sent its troops to the parade.
On April 9 last year, the Australian daily Sydney Morning Herald, reported that China had approached Vanuatu about establishing a permanent military presence in the country.
The Vanuatu government and Chinese foreign ministry rebuffed the report, but China is openly funding the construction of a new wharf on Espiritu Santo, whose stated purpose is to host cruise ships but appears to be much bigger than the island needs. In 2017, China donated 14 military vehicles to Vanuatu.
In September, Beijing made new inroads in the Pacific when the Solomon Islands and Kiribati, long-time allies of Taiwan, switched their diplomatic recognition to China.
The Solomon Islands’ move followed the recommendation of a domestic task force which had concluded that the island nation “stands to benefit a lot if it switches and normalizes diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.”
Speaking at a news conference in Taipei on September 20, Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu said that Beijing had promised to provide Kiribati with funding to buy airplanes and commercial ferries if it cut ties with Taiwan.
China’s western neighbors Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, all parade participants, are even more economically important to Beijing. Most of the 1,833-kilometer-long gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China passes through Kazakhstan and Chinese ties with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are also known to be close.
The majority population in all the former Soviet republics is Muslim and they border on China’s sensitive Xinjiang province where an estimated one million ethnic Uighur Muslims are being held in what reports suggest are detention camps. China sees radical elements among the Uighurs as a terrorism threat.
According to a report in the Washington Post on February 19 this year, dozens, maybe hundreds, of Chinese troops have been posted in Tajikistan where they watch over the Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan, which provides an old passage to China, and therefore a possible infiltration route for militants and weapons.
If true, it would represent China’s second military facility outside its borders after the naval base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa and entrance to the Red Sea. The US maintained a military base in Kyrgyzstan until it was closed in 2014, following years of Russian and Chinese diplomatic pressure.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor connects Kashgar in Xinjiang with the deep sea port of Gwadar, and is China’s only direct outlet to the Indian Ocean apart from a similar “corridor” through Myanmar. As early as 1979, a highway was built over the Karakoram mountains, connecting Kashgar with the Pakistani province of Punjab.
Pakistan’s Gwadar port is expected to be fully functional by November and, although there may not initially be much international trade over the treacherous, mountainous Karakoram Highway, it will provide China with an important link along BRI routes from China and East Asia to the Middle East, Africa and even Europe.
China is also an important trading partner of Serbia, the only European country that sent personnel to participate in the 70th anniversary celebrations in Beijing. The two countries even signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2009 covering a wide array of subjects including technological and scientific exchanges.
At the time, Serbia’s then-president Boris Tadic stated that “just as Serbia supports the one China policy, China supports Serbia as its best and most stable friend in Southeastern Europe.”
Ties between the two countries blossomed after US, reputedly accidentally, dropped bombs that hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, then the capital of Yugoslavia and now of Serbia, in 1999. China was on Serbia’s side in the then-war in Kosovo, which eventually managed to break away and in 2008 declared its independence.
The participation of foreign forces in Beijing’s 70th anniversary celebrations may not have been the highlight of the event. But it nonetheless put into sharp relief changing geopolitical patterns and ties that have attended China’s fast economic and strategic rise.
On the same day, Randall Schriver, US assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said at the Brookings Institution in Washington: “We’re no longer in a period of overwhelming American dominance but rather one in which our armed forces are adapting to fight against near-peer competitors who are fielding increasingly sophisticated capabilities.”
Or, in other words, the anniversary parade may have also marked the beginning of the end of America’s post-Cold War status as the world’s only uncontested superpower. In that context, even small countries like Laos, Vanuatu and Djibouti, all on the march on streets of Beijing on October 1, are relevant actors in an emerging new geo-strategic game.