On October 1, the People’s Republic of China celebrated the 70th year since its founding as it usually does with its anniversaries ending in a zero, that is, by throwing a huge military parade. This one featured more than 15,000 troops – marching in such precision and synchronization that they could put North Korea to shame – 580 different ground weapons and 180 aircraft.
President Xi Jinping gave a “bullish” speech, stating that “no force can shake the status of our great motherland, and no force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation from marching forward.”
And the rest of the world promptly had a huge freak-out.
The pearl-clutchers in the West ominously drew attention to the appearance of several “new” weapons at the parade. In particular, they highlighted the first public display of the DF-17 hypersonic missile, breathlessly noting that there is “no defense” against such weapons. They also pointed out the “big reveal” of a host of other weapons, such as the DF-41 mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the supersonic DR-8 spy drone, the GJ-11 “Sharp Sword” stealthy attack drone, an underwater drone, and the Type-99 main battle tank.
There is an old saying when something is touted as “new and amazing”: what’s “new” isn’t amazing, and what’s “amazing” isn’t new.
It was the same with China’s military parade. The new weapons put on display during this spectacle were hardly surprises. Most had been in development literally for decades, and the rest of the world knew about them years ago. The DF-41 ICBM, for example, was initiated in the 1980s, and reportedly had its first test-launch in 2012. The real question to ask, therefore, is what took it so long?
Similarly, some Western analysts reported that China’s H-6N bomber – which did a flyover during the parade – is outfitted with an external hardpoint that could hold a “very large payload,” leading to speculation that it could accommodate an air-launched derivative of the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. Potentially impressive, yes, but we need to remember that the H-6 is based on a Soviet aircraft (the Tu-16 bomber) that was first delivered to China 60 years ago. In this regard, the Chinese are simply making the best of a bad situation, that is, the lack of a modern bomber-aircraft.
As with such systems as the DF-17, the West has known about Chinese hypersonic weapons for a long time. Of course, there is a growing concern in the West, and particularly in Washington, that China could be opening up a new “hypersonic missile gap” (see my July Asia Times article on the subject), but it is not as if the US military has been sitting on its hands. In fact, the United States has been working on hypersonic vehicles for decades, going back to the X-15 rocket plane, and it is currently working on its own hypersonic projectile for a “conventional prompt strike” capacity.
Twenty years to become an overnight sensation
The fact is, China has over the last 10 years or so emerged as a formidable global military power. It has shown itself capable of indigenously developing and producing a number of world-class military systems, including fighter jets, destroyers and frigates, submarines, and many, many types of missiles.
In every case, however, this was the result not of any great technological “leapfrogging,” but rather a hard, slow slog involving decades of arduous military research and development, the modernization of its defense industries, and, frankly, industrial espionage (that is, stealing Western technology). If China has seen progress in building a technologically awe-inspiring military, it is because Beijing has spent more than 20 years plowing vast amounts of money, manpower and commitment into the process.
To use the language of innovation specialists, China’s growth as a military power has been more evolutionary, steady-state, and sustaining, rather than disruptive or revolutionary. Not that this is necessarily a bad path for the Chinese military, nor is it one that should not give other nations considerable cause for concern and even alarm. China has undeniably emerged (and continues to grow) as a military, as well as economic and political, power in the Asia-Pacific region. But none of this should be a surprise to people who have watched China for the past 20 or more years, and nor should anyone be shocked by a military parade that was as well choreographed as any Broadway musical.