China's National Day Parade to offer a glimpse into its military ambitions

Soldiers walk past armoured vehicles parked along a street ahead a parade rehearsal event in Beijing, China, on Sept 21, 2019.
Soldiers walk past armoured vehicles parked along a street ahead a parade rehearsal event in Beijing, China, on Sept 21, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING (AP) - A parade on Tuesday (Oct 1) by China's secretive military will offer a rare look at its rapidly developing arsenal, including possibly a nuclear-armed missile that could reach the United States in 30 minutes, as Beijing gets closer to matching Washington and other powers in weapons technology.

The Dongfeng 41 missile is one of a series of new weapons Chinese media say might be unveiled during the parade marking the ruling Communist Party's 70th anniversary in power. Others include a supersonic drone and a robot submarine.

The parade will highlight Beijing's ambition to enforce claims to Taiwan, the South China Sea and other disputed territories - and to challenge Washington as the region's dominant force.

The People's Liberation Army, the world's biggest military with two million men and women in uniform and the second-highest annual spending after the US, is also working on fighter planes, the first Chinese-built aircraft carrier and nuclear-powered submarines.

"There are quite a lot of observers, including the US military, who say, 'This is getting close to what we do,' and they are starting to worry," said Mr Siemon Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

Tuesday's parade will include 15,000 troops, more than 160 aircraft and 580 pieces of military equipment, according to Ministry of Defence spokesman Major General Cai Zhijun.

Many new weapons "will be shown for the first time", Maj Gen Cai told reporters last week. Asked whether that would include the Dongfeng 41, he said: "Please wait and see."

The ability to project power is increasingly urgent for Chinese leaders who want to control shipping lanes and waters also claimed by Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and other governments.

 
 
 

"China has developed nuclear, space, cyber space and other capabilities that can reach potential adversaries across the globe," the US Defence Intelligence Agency said in a report in January.

Last year's spending on the PLA rose 5 per cent to US$250 billion (S$345 billion), or about 10 times its 1994 level, according to Sipri. The US, with a force of 1.3 million, was far ahead at US$650 billion, or more than twice China's level.

Beijing is regarded, along with the US, as a leader in drone aircraft, which it sells in the Middle East.

"In unpiloted aerial vehicles, China has made a lot of progress in recent years and has a vast array of systems under development," said Mr Harry Boyd of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

No details of the Dongfeng 41 have been released, but the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says it may have the world's longest range at 15,000km.

Analysts say the Dongfeng 41, flying at 25 times the speed of sound, might be able to reach the US in 30 minutes, with up to 10 warheads for separate targets - a technology known as MIRV, or multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles.

China's current mainstay missile, the Dongfeng 31, has a range of more than 11,200km that puts most of the continental US within reach.

Photos circulated on Chinese social media of parade preparations show blurry images of a possible attack drone dubbed "Sharp Sword" and another drone, the DR-8 or Wuzhen 8.

The parade also might give more subtle signs of China's plans, said Mr Wezeman.

Airborne tankers or marines in amphibious vehicles could "indicate the importance of long-range intervention," he said. Air defence missiles might show Beijing is preparing for war with the US or another advanced opponent.

Analysts want to know about Chinese software, electronics and wireless control networks, said Mr Wezeman.

"Ten vehicles full of antennas may give an indication that is something that is becoming more important for China," he said.

If mobile launchers for nuclear missiles are displayed, that might help to shed light on how Beijing sees "the challenge of maintaining credibility with their nuclear deterrent", Mr Boyd said.

 
 

China has about 280 nuclear warheads, compared with 6,450 for the US and 6,850 for Russia, according to Sipri. Beijing says it wants a "minimum credible nuclear deterrent" but won't be the first to use atomic weapons in a conflict.

Mobile launchers "would make it more difficult for any potential enemy to do a first strike", said Mr Boyd.

Satellite photos show China is increasing the number of launchers for DF-41 and DF-31 missiles from 18 to as many as 36, he said.

That suggests planners believe that minimum nuclear force "needs to be larger", he said. "It needs to have more advanced systems with MIRV capability to remain credible, in their eyes."