China 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 most Western leaders but which underscored Beijing's growing confidence in its armed forces.
President Xi Jinping, speaking on a rostrum overlooking Beijing's Tiananmen Square before the parade began, offered an unexpected olive branch by saying China would cut its troop levels by 300,000. That would streamline one of the world's biggest militaries, currently around 2.3-million strong.
Xi gave no timeframe for the troop cut, adding China would always "walk down the path of peaceful development".
He then descended to Beijing's main thoroughfare and inspected rows of troops, riding past them in a black limousine and bellowing repeatedly: "Hello comrades, hard-working comrades!"
More than 12,000 soldiers, mostly Chinese but with contingents from Russia and elsewhere, then began marching down Changan Avenue, led by veterans of World War Two carried in vehicles.
They will be followed by a range of ballistic missiles, tanks and armoured vehicles, many never seen in public before. Advanced fighter jets and bombers are also due to fly overhead.
Among the weapons China will unveil for the first time is an anti-ship ballistic missile, the Dongfeng-21D, which is reportedly capable of destroying an aircraft carrier with one hit.
Lined up in a sidestreet were also several intercontinental ballistic missiles such as the DF-5B and the DF-31A as well as the DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), dubbed the "Guam killer" in reference to a U.S. Pacific Ocean base.
For Xi, the parade is a welcome distraction from the country's plunging stock markets, slowing economy and recent blasts at a chemical warehouse that killed at least 160 people.
Xi was 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.
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.
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.
"As for the claim that China intends the event as a sabre-rattling occasion to instil fear, it is nothing but nonsense since China has always insisted on resolving disputes via peaceful means," state news agency Xinhua said in a commentary.
Chinease Navy in Bering Sea
Xi has set great store on China's military modernisation, 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 ordinary people kept well away.
"This parade and patriotism are two separate things," said Mi Guoxian, who had come to Beijing for a wedding, standing on a nearly deserted street behind a line of police.
"This is for the national leaders."