For years, the outside world has stared at blurry pictures and smudged satellite images in hopes of divining the growing new power of the Chinese military.
On Thursday, China will pull back at least some of the veil as it turns Beijing's most important boulevard into a grand stage for a large-scale expansion of defence technology and capability bought with a near-tenfold increase in armed-forces spending since 2000.
Some 12,000 soldiers, 500 pieces of military equipment – including tanks and missiles – and 200 aircraft will pass by Tiananmen Square, as Chinese President Xi Jinping watches alongside guests that include Russia's Vladimir Putin, South Korea's Park Geun-hye and Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) has said 84 per cent of the weaponry will be shown publicly for the first time.
The roar of jets and the fearsome silhouettes of new weapons will send an unmistakable message that China is nearing the ability to keep even the most sophisticated of foreign forces at bay, an advance with sweeping implications for the balance of power in Asia. China has planned the parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and its role in defeating Japan, a contribution won with millions of lives and years of fighting Beijing feels the international community has overlooked. But in mounting a display of firepower over a march of veterans or a moment of silence for the occasion, the Chinese leadership is seeking to show a watching world that it has now amassed the strength to once again fight off the strongest of invaders.
"If successfully co-ordinated, the PLA is reaching a point where it could overwhelm U.S. and Japanese naval ship defences," said Rick Fisher, an expert in Chinese military technology and senior fellow at the Virginia-based International Assessment and Strategy Center. Photos of Chinese equipment used in parade rehearsals, some of it shrouded in camouflage wrap, appear to confirm previous speculation about new Chinese weapons, including the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile that is "without compare in the U.S. or Russian missile arsenals," Mr. Fisher said.
With a 3,000- to 4,000-kilometre estimated range, it would allow China to extend "its theatre nuclear reach," he said, from the Japan-Taiwan-Philippines area to more distant targets such as Guam, where the United States maintains three military bases.
The new arsenal, believed to include ramjet-powered supersonic missiles, is potent enough that if China were to attack Taiwan – a key training priority for the PLA – anti-ship missiles could "rain from the sky," launched by fleets of submarines and bombers. If the attack is co-ordinated, it "would overwhelm U.S. ship defences," Mr. Fisher said, adding that the United States needs new technology such as railguns to counter the threat.
China, meanwhile, is moving rapidly to ensure its military is strong enough that it can do as it pleases in Asia without fear of other countries interfering. It is a strategy "to assert its role as a great power in Asia and to erode America's position," said Hugh White, a professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University.
With the military parade, "China is choosing to make such a big show to demonstrate to people that's exactly what they've done," Prof. White said. China now has the potential to find and sink the most powerful instruments of U.S. military might, including aircraft carriers, he said.
"It's far from being a certainty they can do so, but they have a much better chance of doing so now than 20 years ago," he said. "This is really a very significant shift in the military balance in the western Pacific."
Willy Lam, a China expert and university lecturer in Hong Kong, called the unveiling of armaments at the parade "a naked power projection. It could speed the arms race within Asia, and even on an international basis."
More is coming. A May report by the U.S. Secretary of Defence on China's military progress noted that some time this year, China is expected to conduct its first patrol using a nuclear ballistic-missile-armed submarine, even as it develops stealth fighters and other jets that are "rapidly closing the gap with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities."
China's military ambitions stem in part from a desire to regain a dominance many feel was lost during a period of humiliation by British and Japanese forces. Earlier this year, in announcing another 10-per-cent annual increase in military spending, a spokeswoman for China's National People's Congress said "those who fall behind will get bullied" – a sentiment aimed today squarely at the United States.
Beijing has deliberately sought a "rebalancing of the power structure" with Washington, said Zhou Shaolai, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the country's top national academic organization. The change will likely "bring conflict to the region that will last another 20 or 30 years," he said.
At the same time, China has shown little sign of aggression outside territory it claims as its own. "There is no need for other countries to be so worried," Mr. Zhou said. "China may be a big country, but we are a responsible country that will guard the peace."
China also remains short of the military capacity to successfully attack an advanced country, although in a white paper this year the Chinese State Council described an expansion of its naval mandate from defence of offshore waters to "open-seas protection," which suggests pursuit of a blue-water navy. In December, 2014, China dispatched a nuclear submarine to the Gulf of Aden, an event that sent shock waves through the Indian military.
The escalation has been a long time in the making.
"If you chart a line from the era of Deng Xiaoping, you have 'hiding and biding.' You then go through 'peaceful rise' at the turn of the millennium," said David Kelly, research director for China Policy, an advisory firm in Beijing. The changes since don't yet rise to "assertive" or "aggressive," he said. He prefers "pro-active" as a descriptor of current Chinese security and foreign policy.
In nationalist circles, rising military capacity has emboldened calls for more. In May, the Communist mouthpiece tabloid, the Global Times, warned that "a U.S.-China war is inevitable" if Washington seeks to bar Beijing from building artificial islands in the South China Sea. That activity has provoked broad regional anger.
In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is midway through an effort to remove pacifist language from the constitution to allow the military to fight alongside other countries. Taiwan, too, is worried, saying China's weapons' display will heighten regional tensions already elevated by Beijing's aggressive actions in disputed maritime areas. "I don't think it's good for them to show their muscles at this moment," Andrew Hsia, the Minister of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, said in an interview.
Still, worries about China's armaments should be seen in light of its own political turbulence, said Zhou Xiaozheng, a well-known Chinese sociologist and commentator.
The military parade, he said, is intended to rebuild faith at home in a Communist Party already hurt by a corruption crisis and slowing economy – and now further damaged by crumbling stock markets and a horrific chemical explosion in Tianjin.
"It's a time when authority and power need to be emphasized, because chaos must be avoided," Mr. Zhou said.
The show of military force tells the Chinese people "that our country is strong, and at least we can keep it under control."
With a report from Yu Mei