BEIJING – Russian leader Vladimir Putin, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon shine at the top of China's guest list at this week's grand commemorations of the 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II. After them, the wattage gets pretty low.
Beijing says the attendance of 30 overseas leaders from countries ranging from Mongolia to Egypt to Venezuela is a sign that China's long-undervalued contributions to that hallowed victory in 1945 are finally getting their proper due.
That's clouded, however, by the absence of high-level representatives from major Western democracies whose forces played a key role in the Allied victory, such as the United States, Britain, France and Australia. Given Beijing's political repression at home and its aggressive moves to assert territorial claims abroad, many countries appear reluctant to associate too closely with an event calculated to elevate the Communist Party and its leader, President Xi Jinping, on the world stage.
China on Thursday celebrates what it calls the Victory of the Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War, which marks the day after Japan formally surrendered to the Allies aboard a U.S. naval ship 70 years ago. Four years later, Mao Zedong's Communists overthrew the Nationalists who had led the fight against Japan, and established the People's Republic that endures to this day as a one-party autocratic state.
The festivities in Beijing will be centered on a massive military parade featuring more than 12,000 troops, scores of warplanes and more than 500 pieces of hardware including tanks, artillery and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Britain, Germany and Japan are dispatching only retired government leaders, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The U.S. will be represented only by its ambassador to China, Max Baucus.
Just one head of state from a European Union country will attend: Czech President Milos Zeman.
"I think one has to understand that there has always been an uneasiness (about) these kinds of military parades," said Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, the EU's top diplomat in Beijing.
Even Kim Jong Un of North Korea, which counts China as its closest ally, is giving the event a skip, instead sending the secretary of the ruling Korean Workers Party, Choe Ryong Hae. That's perhaps par for the course given that Kim has never left his authoritarian nation since taking power in late 2011.
A grab-bag of nations, meanwhile, has dispatched contingents totaling about 1,000 soldiers to march in the parade, among them Cuba, Pakistan, Cambodia, Venezuela and the tiny Pacific island state of Vanuatu. Another 31 countries, including France, Poland and South Korea, are sending what are described as "high-level military delegations."
If China is disappointed by the turnout, it hasn't let on. This is the first time Beijing has invited such a broad range of foreign leaders to a military parade, and the first time it has held such an event to commemorate the end of the war.
"We have invited leaders of relevant countries to join the Chinese people to celebrate this great day. But it is their own decision. For us, we respect and welcome all guests," Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Ming said late last month.
The Global Times, a newspaper published by the party mouthpiece, People's Daily, has cited experts as saying the turnout "indicates the worldwide acknowledgment of China's long-ignored contribution to the Asian battlefield during World War II as well as China's rising global status."
The mass display of marching troops and the latest Chinese hardware will showcase China's rising military might. It's also a warning of the consequences of crossing China, although Beijing maintains that the parade is strictly about commemorating past sacrifices and demonstrating its commitment to safeguarding peace.
The spectacle shows the result of two decades of double-digit annual percentage defense budget increases that have transformed the 2.3 million-member People Liberation Army and pushed annual defense spending to $145 billion this year, the second-most after the United States.
It comes as China has drawn growing criticism over its moves to shore up its territorial claims in the South China Sea, including with the creation of entirely new islands out of and atolls and coral reefs, complete with airstrips and berths for large naval vessels. At the same time, Beijing has pressed its claim to unoccupied East China Sea islands controlled by Tokyo, a dispute that erupted into days of anti-Japanese rioting across China in 2012.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has passed on his invitation, sending a China-friendly predecessor, Tomiichi Murayama, in his place. The Philippines, with whom China has tangled most in the South China Sea, is sending former president Joseph Estrada. India, China's other chief regional rival, is sending former army chief of staff Gen. V.K. Singh.
The U.S. government, in addition to being concerned about China's South China Sea island-building, would be wary of seeming to endorse Beijing's military buildup at a time of tightening U.S. defense budgets, and of offending Japan, said June Teufel Dreyer, a China politics expert at the University of Miami.
The parade's anti-Japan subtext is difficult to miss.
In addition to the event's official title, Chinese propaganda in recent weeks has ramped up its constant drumbeat of outrage over Tokyo's war crimes, warnings over resurgent Japanese militarism and condemnation of the current Japanese leadership. "Japan and its leaders have to give neighboring countries enough reason to shelve the past look to a better future with Japan," the official China Daily newspaper said in an editorial Tuesday.
"There's the optics in terms of our relations with Tokyo, of participating in an event that rubs it in the nose of our ally once again," Dreyer said. "Then there's the Obama administration's desire to avoid further domestic criticism for its supine attitude toward China's assertiveness."
In a similar sign of opprobrium, Washington refrained from sending a ranking official to similar commemorations in Moscow over the spring. The U.S. "probably doesn't want to be perceived as favoring one side versus the other," Dreyer said.
Western leaders "would prefer not to be used in a highly propagandistic, anti-Japanese show by China," said David Zweig, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology.
China firmly rejects any notion of an anti-Tokyo parade agenda.
Asked about Abe's decision not to accept an invitation, the Foreign Ministry's Zhang responded that China has "stressed several times that the celebrations are not targeting specific countries, not Japan, nor the Japanese people.
"It has no direct link to current Sino-Japanese relations," Zhang said.