Moments after inspecting a gleaming new arsenal that includes giant nuclear-capable missiles, China's President offered an olive branch to the world and said he will cut the country's sprawling armed forces by 300,000.
"We Chinese love peace," Xi Jinping said Thursday, at a military parade that capped months of preparation and wall-to-wall military-themed propaganda on state media. "No matter how much stronger it may become, China will never seek hegemony or expansion. It will never inflict its past suffering on any other nation."
Mr. Xi, whose own political stature the parade was meant to buttress, spoke after a 70-gun salute echoed across Tiananmen Square. The chest-rumbling blasts opened a massive event to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender in the Second World War.
Soon after, platoons of soldiers goose-stepped down Chang'anjie – Beijing's famed Avenue of Eternal Peace – followed by great masses of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and trucks carrying ballistic missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads to virtually anywhere on Earth. Overhead, jet fighters, bombers and fuel tankers pierced the sky, followed by a flying canopy of helicopters, which China said was the largest such formation ever assembled for a military parade.
Included in the parade were unmanned aerial vehicles; the DF-26 missile, dubbed the "Guam Killer" for its Pacific-spanning range; and the DF-5B missile, a powerful intercontinental nuclear missile that can strike almost anywhere on the planet. Announcers called it a "shield and defence of national sovereignty and national dignity."
The deadly armaments struck a jarring juxtaposition to Mr. Xi's words of peace – not to mention the place he stood as he spoke.
It is "ironic for these types of nuclear capabilities to be paraded by the Gate of Heavenly Peace," said Mark Stokes, executive director of the The Project 2049 Institute, which studies security issues in Asia. The public unveiling was "intended to awe other powers in the Asia-Pacific region, including the U.S. and Japan, for deterrent and coercive purposes," he said.
Indeed, the military display and looming personnel cuts serve the same goal: to demonstrate that the People's Liberation Army is fast becoming a lean, modern military force with the technology and organizational adeptness to defend against even the most skilled of adversaries. Even with a reduction, the biggest in almost 20 years, China's standing army will remain roughly two-million strong.
The parade included poignant moments in memory of the great sacrifices China made during Second World War fighting against Japan – aging veterans were given a dignified welcome, and the event concluded by filling the sky with doves and balloons.
But Thursday marked the first time China has commemorated the anniversary with such a show of weapons. And the months of stage-craft and planning that preceded the display, broadcast live across China, sought to present an image of a nation whose stunning economic rise is now being accompanied by an equally potent military one.
The new armaments "show our country's comprehensive power, including its military power," said one spectator, Mr. Han, who gave only his last name. He was among the privileged elites given front-row tickets to the parade. "Chinese soldiers are capable of defending our land and people."
On the streets of Beijing, meanwhile, virtually everyone either tuned in to watch or stepped outside to see the jets overhead. "China is getting stronger. Chairman Mao used to say China should be able to stand forever among the world's nations. I think that has been fully displayed through this parade," said Ji Jinglu, a retiree.
"When people are united and recover their confidence, it's natural to win in battle," said Mr. Sun, another retiree. "China is now fairly strong. If there was a war, we would not be afraid."
Others said there is little reason for the outside world to fear China's arms buildup. "They have no need to worry," said Fan Shuiyong, who works at a state-run weather broadcaster. "Our military may be stronger now, but we have never invaded another country."
The parade marked the biggest event on the Chinese calendar this year. Beijing ordered a three-day holiday to encourage observance, shutting down stock markets and, for three hours Thursday morning, closing its capital airport, one of the busiest on Earth.
Volunteers and women's groups began assembling long before dawn to be bussed to the parade site; some skipped sleep in anticipation. The rest of the country was kept at a distance, with people in apartments near the parade route ordered to stay inside and away from windows.
With skies over the capital clarified to a rare blue – secured by the closing of some 12,200 nearby coal-fired boilers and factories – foreign dignitaries lined up to shake hands with an unsmiling Mr. Xi.
Most Western leaders boycotted the event, sending lower-ranking ministers or diplomats. Those who came offered a reflection of who China holds close. Present were heads of state including Joseph Kabila from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Alexander Lukashenko from Belarus, South Korea's Park Geun-hye and Russia's Vladimir Putin, whose arrival the parade crowds greeted with a loud "oh!" and applause.
For Mr. Xi, the event carried political importance, too. As he stood on a rostrum overlooking Tiananmen Square directly above the portrait of Mao Zedong, he was flanked by foreign leaders and the power brokers of modern China: Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, Li Peng, Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao.
In front of him, breaking with Chinese tradition, generals rather than junior officers led marching troop units, another image of fealty to a president whose first military parade has come much earlier in his tenure than his predecessors – a result, in part, of Mr. Xi's aggressive efforts to consolidate power.
It was a "coronation ceremony for Xi," said Willy Lam, a China expert and university lecturer in Hong Kong. "This is a ritual to confer the status of undisputed strongman on the top leader."
With reporting by Yu Mei