Speaking on the Tiananmen Rostrum where Mao Zedong declared the formation of the People’s Republic in 1949, Xi said “total victory” over Japan “restored China’s status as a major country in the world”.

Major world leaders stayed away from the display of military might, with disquiet growing over China’s increasing willingness to throw its weight around in territorial disputes.

Photo: HKFP/Lukas Messmer.

The parade comes as the Chinese navy pushes further away from domestic shores, challenging US dominance, with five of its vessels spotted in the Bering Sea for the first time, according to the Pentagon.

After a 70-gun salute thousands of troops — including a detachment from Russia, whose President Vladimir Putin was the highest-profile foreign guest — marched in formation through the square, with tanks and missiles following and a flypast by around 200 aircraft in blue skies overhead.

Xi said that Beijing will “not seek hegemony” and China’s military — the largest in the world — would be reduced by 300,000 troops.

Authorities have previously made personnel cuts to the 2.3 million strong People’s Liberation Army in a bid to make it a more efficient fighting force.

Photo: HKFP/Lukas Messmer.

Beijing officially calls the conflict the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War, and regularly criticises Tokyo for what it says is insufficient contrition over wartime atrocities.

But it has repeatedly insisted the parade was not aimed at any particular country, including Japan.

“The unyielding Chinese people fought gallantly and finally won total victory against the Japanese militarist aggressors, thus preserving China’s 5,000-year-old civilisation and upholding the cause of peace,” Xi said.

He described the conflict as “a decisive battle between justice and evil, between light and darkness”.

The equipment on show for the first time included DF-21D missiles, an anti-ship ballistic missile seen as a “carrier-killer” that could alter the balance of power with the US in the Pacific Ocean.

A commentator on Chinese television described the weapon as a “trump card”.

Under Xi, Beijing is moving farther away from former leader Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to “hide one’s capabilities, bide one’s time” and is becoming more willing to take harder lines, both externally and against domestic opponents.

Photo: HKFP/Lukas Messmer.

‘Very nationalistic’ 

Decades of double-digit budget increases have transformed the military, giving Beijing the confidence to push a programme of artificial island building in the South China Sea and vigorously proclaim its sovereignty over disputed outcrops controlled by Japan.

John Delury, an expert on China at Yonsei University in Seoul, told AFP the limited international guest list was because “it’s a very nationalistic and militaristic event”.

“Across Asia and certainly in the United States there are all these concerns about the hard power side of China’s rise,” he said.

The sight of military muscle in Tiananmen Square, where Chinese troops crushed protests in 1989, is also likely to have played a part in keeping some democratic-minded Western leaders away.

Putin was given a prominent position next to Xi on the rostrum, as were ranks of former Chinese leaders, including Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

Also present were leaders of Kazakhstan and Venezuela, as well as Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir — indicted by the International Criminal Court — and authoritarian Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who brought one of his sons.

More mainstream guests included South Korea’s Park Geun-Hye, whose country was colonised by Japan, Jacob Zuma of South Africa — which with China is part of the BRICS groups of major emerging economies -– and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Photo: HKFP/Lukas Messmer.

Chinese authorities mobilised hundreds of thousands of Beijing citizens and closed roads all over the city, as well as shuttering  the capital’s airports.

They also curtailed pollution-spewing factories and vehicles to ensure blue-skies.

The Communist Party uses nationalism as a key part of its claim to a right to rule, and China’s official media have carried a litany of articles on past Japanese atrocities, with war dramas a constant theme on television.

The propaganda campaign has also focused on the resistance of “the entire Chinese nation” against Japan, obscuring the Communist Party’s rivalry with the then-governing Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, who was defeated in the ensuing civil war and fled to Taiwan.

Recently China has only carried out such giant military shows once a decade, and always on the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1.

This one instead came the day after the 70th anniversary of Japan’s formal surrender in 1945 on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

by Kelly Olsen.

AFP is a global news agency delivering fast, in-depth coverage of the events shaping our world from wars and conflicts to politics, sports, entertainment and the latest breakthroughs in health, science and technology.