BEIJING (Reuters) - China will put on its biggest display of military might on Thursday in a parade to commemorate victory over Japan in World War Two, an event shunned by Western leaders but which underscores Beijing's growing confidence in its armed forces.
More than 12,000 troops, mostly Chinese but with contingents from Russia and elsewhere, will march through Beijing's central Tiananmen Square from 10 a.m. (10 p.m. EDT Wednesday). They will be accompanied by a range of ballistic missiles, tanks and armored vehicles, many never seen in public before, as advanced fighter jets and bombers fly overhead.
For President Xi Jinping, who will preside over China's biggest event of the year, the parade is a welcome distraction from the country's plunging stock markets, slowing economy and recent blasts at a chemical warehouse that killed 145 people.
Xi will be joined by Russian President Vladimir Putin and leaders of several other nations with close ties to China, including Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
Most Western leaders rebuffed invitations to attend, diplomats said, unhappy about the guest list and wary of the message China is sending to a region already rattled by its military assertiveness, especially in the South China Sea.
On the eve of the event, Xi said Japanese invaders before and during World War Two behaved with barbarity and tried to slaughter the Chinese people into surrender.
The Chinese government has repeatedly said the parade is not aimed at today's Japan, but to remember the past and to remind the world of China's huge sacrifices during the conflict. However, it rarely misses an opportunity to draw attention to Japan's wartime role.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is not attending the event, which is being held one day after the 70th anniversary of Tokyo's surrender in World War Two.
"For decades, when people in Western countries talk about WWII, they usually refer to the battles on the European continent and have little knowledge about China's role as the major oriental theater of the war," state news agency Xinhua said in an English-language commentary this week.
Xi has set great store on China's military modernization, including developing an ocean-going "blue water" navy capable of defending the country's growing global interests.
In a sign of that emerging capability, five Chinese Navy ships are sailing in international waters in the Bering Sea off Alaska, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama is touring the state.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said it was the first time the United States had seen Chinese navy ships in the Bering Sea.
It was not clear whether their presence was timed to coincide with Obama's visit or if it followed a recent Chinese-Russian navy exercise. Chinese state media has said nothing about the Bering Sea deployment.
"It is living up to what the Chinese have been saying, 'We are now a blue water navy. We will operate in the far seas and we are a global presence'," said Dean Cheng, a China expert at the Heritage Foundation think-tank in Washington.
Xi will meet Obama in Washington for talks later this month that will be dominated by a host of thorny issues, including China's growing military reach.
Beijing has been put under lock-down to ensure nothing goes wrong at the parade, with much of the downtown off-limits, a three-day holiday declared and, according to one Chinese newspaper, monkeys used to clear birds' nests from trees along the route.
Factories hundreds of miles away have been closed to guarantee clear skies in the normally smoggy metropolis, and some residents whose apartments overlook roads along which the tanks will rumble have been warned not to look out of windows.
State media has gone into a propaganda overdrive, and entertainment programming on television has been suspended to ensure the proper reverential atmosphere.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in WASHINGTON; Editing by Nick Macfie and Dean Yates