Strategic Deterrence and China’s Military Parade

As the thoughtful discussion on ChinaFile notes, the upcoming military review is designed to serve several different purposes. The actual military purpose of the parade, however, should not be overlooked.

Put simply, military reviews are one way in which China engages in what authoritative PLA sources describe as “strategic deterrence.” The concept of strategic deterrence does not refer narrowly only to nuclear deterrence, though that is important. Rather, it describes more broadly all the ways that displays of military capabilities can be used to show strength and deter others from challenging China’s interests. In the 1984 parade, for example, the Dongfeng-5 intercontinental ballistic missile was displayed for the first time to show the world that China possessed a nuclear retaliatory capability.

Military reviews are usually held on China’s national day to commemorate the founding of the People’s Republic. This week’s military review is the first in several decades to be held “off cycle,” only six years since the last one in 2009. Nevertheless, although intended to remember the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the deterrent purpose extends far beyond Japan. From Beijing’s perspective, its regional security environment has deteriorated in the past few years. Territorial and maritime boundary disputes with many neighbors have intensified. Under the “rebalance” to Asia, the United States has increased its military assets forward-deployed in the region and improved its security ties with many states, especially those in active disputes with China.

These changes in China’s security environment may help to explain why Xi Jinping did not want to wait until 2019 to hold a military review. Amid a worsening security environment, Beijing may feel that it needs to show strength and resolve. As Chinese media sources have noted, the majority of the equipment in the parade will be on public display for the first time—clearly an effort to show strength. For example, several new missile systems may be appear, including the Dongfeng-16, a short-range conventional ballistic missile, and the Dongfeng-21D, a medium-range conventional ballistic missile designed to strike surface ships such as aircraft carriers, among others.

Yet if the military purpose of the parade is to enhance China’s strategic deterrence, displays of strength may easily backfire—especially because of existing tensions. Rather than deter others from challenging China, the parade is more likely to underscore the military threat that China poses and affirm increasingly negative perceptions of Beijing’s intentions.

[This originally appeared as part of a ChinaFile discussion on the parade]