As Russia celebrates the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in Europe on Saturday, the most prominent leader standing with President Vladimir Putin will be China’s leader, Xi Jinping.
BEIJING — When Russia celebrates the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in Europe on Saturday, the most prominent leader standing with President Vladimir Putin to review a military parade will not be from the United States or Britain, Russia’s wartime allies.
Rather, it will be China’s leader, Xi Jinping, an imperfect symbol of the wartime past and an uncertain one for Russia’s future.
During his two years in office, Xi has traveled widely to advance China’s international prestige, and he is in Moscow in part because he wants to make sure his country’s costly fight against Japan is not lost amid the celebrations of the defeat of Germany.
Putin, for his part, is happy to have Xi as evidence his highly public pivot to the Far East — as a counterweight to the economic muscle of the West — is bearing fruit.
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However, there are several awkward factors that impinge on the images that both Xi and Putin aspire to project.
First, although Xi may be the paramount leader of the Chinese Communists, and while his father was a prominent Communist commander, it was not the Communists who bore the brunt of the fighting against the Japanese during World War II, when 14 million to 20 million Chinese died. Rather, it was the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek, backed by the United States and Gen. Joseph Stilwell, who deployed most of the troops against the Japanese.
“There has been an inconvenient truth at the heart of China’s discomfort about remembering the war until quite recently,” Rana Mitter, a British historian and the author of “China’s War With Japan,” said.
“During the years 1937 to ’45, the vast majority of the set piece battles fought by China against Japan were carried out by Nationalist, not Communist, troops.”
The Communists, still a band of feisty guerrillas in the 1940s, carried out important attacks on the Japanese. But without the Nationalist war effort, China probably would have collapsed by 1938, he said.
In many respects, the Communists gained a great advantage in the war years over the Nationalists, who by the end were depleted and demoralized. The Communists, who had held back and were comparatively fresher, then crushed the Nationalists in the civil war that followed the victory over the Japanese.
Little of the domestic history that fails to burnish the Communist Party’s war record is likely to be recalled during the festivities in Moscow. In preparation for Saturday’s parade, an honor guard of Chinese troops sang the Russian wartime love song “Katyusha” in Chinese as they marched through the streets in the past week in snappy new olive green uniforms designed for the occasion, according to CCTV, the state run television station.
Instead, during his three days in Moscow there will be plenty of time for Xi to show off China’s friendship with Russia, a courtship that began in earnest after Europe and the United States imposed economic sanctions on Russia to penalize Putin for his bullying tactics in Ukraine.
Last month Russia said China would buy its most advanced air- and missile-defense system, known as the S-400, a sale that Russia had been reluctant to make for fear of Chinese reverse engineering.
The joint appearance in Moscow was good timing for both sides, said Li Xin, director of the Russia and Central Asian Research Center at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. “Russia needs more partners during this period of Western sanctions, and China is surely an ideal one,” Li said.
On the way to Moscow, Xi stopped in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, traditionally a Russian playground but a place where China has gained influence in recent years. Promising to make it an important part of its Silk Road economic belt, China is pledging to build roads, pipelines and railroads, all big ticket items that Russia in its current financial hard times cannot afford to fund, even for its allies.
The $400 billion energy deal signed with much fanfare in Shanghai a year ago, and a smaller deal agreed to a few months later, are supposed to bring gas from Russia to China. But there has been virtually no follow-up, said Edward, senior fellow for energy and security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.