China's latest pick-me-up: A massive military parade

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A lavish parade of military firepower may be Beijing's latest means of reinforcing its legitimacy in the eyes of mainland citizens after recent events, including a severe stock market plunge, shook trust in the government.

"The parade represents not only a bold show of Chinese nationalism, military might and bilateral relationships, but also a necessary distraction from the economic slowdown, the recent explosion in Tianjin, ongoing environmental concerns, and corruption at home," commented Lauren Dickey, research associate at the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), in a recent note.

On Thursday, China's capital city will hold its first-ever military parade to commemorate Japan's World War II surrender, or the "Commemoration of Seventieth Anniversary of Victory of Chinese People's Resistance against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War" as Beijing calls it.

In the past, military parades were typically reserved to celebrate anniversaries of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Battle tanks, helicopter gunships, fighter jets and ballistic missiles—all domestically made—will pass through Tiananmen Square, along with more than 12,000 troops, including foreign contingents from Russia and Mongolia.

The country will come to a stand-still, with flights cancelled, manufacturing halted and financial markets shut until Friday.

Allaying concerns

Beijing's credibility has taken a hit following seemingly contradictory policy measures and large-scale intervention to stabilize battered equity markets—moves that have effectively made the government the buyer of last resort. Many analysts cited Thursday's parade as a key reason the China Securities Finance Corporation (CSFC) reportedly raised fresh capital for a round of stock support last week.

"China could have done a better job with stock market intervention so this parade is a chance for the current leadership to impose authority," James Char, research analyst at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, told CNBC.

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The opulent display of military prowess could also serve to remind citizens of the country's economic might even as Beijing experiences its slowest pace of growth in six years.

China's official manufacturing purchasing managers' index (PMI), released Thursday, slipped to 49.7 in August—the weakest level since August 2012. It was the first time the official PMI has fallen below 50 in six months, according to analysts at Nomura, and was the latest in a run of disappointing data that has damped the growth outlook for the second half. Economists now warn growth could dip below 7 percent during the third and fourth quarter.

Female soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army attend a training session for the September 3 military parade.
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images

Moreover, public ire towards the government remains elevated following a deadly chemical explosion in Tianjin and most recently, blasts in Dongying and Longnan. While the cause behind Tianjin's detonation remains unknown, reports emerged that highly hazardous chemicals were stored closer to housing than permitted, sparking outrage at lax safety and environmental regulations.

In the face of local difficulties, Thursday's glittering parade gives President Xi Jinping a chance to curry greater domestic support and show off his consolidation of the military ahead of his visit to Washington later this month, Char said.

International imprint

Aside from China's domestic concerns, Thursday's holiday showcase contains a message for the Asian region too.

The President will be accompanied by more than 20 global leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan and Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro. Notably, Western and Japanese leaders won't be in attendance, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rejecting Beijing's invitation, a move that may further strain ties between the two Asian giants.

"Official sources suggest Abe was further concerned that his presence would be interpreted as conceding to aggressive Chinese activity in disputed waters," noted the CFR's Dickey, referring to a long-standing territorial conflict over a set of islands in the South China Sea.

Indeed, state-owned Chinese newspaper The People's Daily reported earlier this year that the parade was aimed at intimidating Japan and discouraging Tokyo from pursuing an "unrestrained China policy," all the more significant now that Japan has amended its pacific constitution.

However, South Korean President Park Geun-hye will be there despite Beijing's close relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who will not be not be attending. Analysts say her presence is aimed at expressing solidarity with China seeing as both countries suffered from Japan's war crimes and both are awaiting a "sincere" apology from Prime Minister Abe.

At Japan's WWII anniversary last month, Abe expressed remorse over his country's war actions but stopped short of a formal apology.

Ultimately, Thursday's festivities have been engineered to send a message to those who challenge China's regional and global standing, Dickey said.

"The intent is to remind onlookers near and far of China's commitment to its own strength and prosperity - through any and all means necessary."