An article Saturday reported that China sold M9 and M11 missiles to Iran. Military analysts say they do not believe that such a sale occurred. (Published 10/08/1999)

With a two-mile-long military parade that included ballistic missiles, a new warplane and 11,000 soldiers--some in short red skirts--the People's Liberation Army stole the show today as China celebrated 50 years of Communist rule.

The occasion provided a long-sought day in Beijing's hazy sun for the world's largest standing fighting force, and culminated sustained efforts to burnish an image damaged by the crackdown in 1989 against student-led protests in Beijing and then by allegations of corruption and incompetence.

With its importance enhanced by Beijing's opposition to the war in Kosovo and bad relations with Taiwan, China's military establishment has marched back into the front ranks of policymaking and influence in the past year, with a fatter budget and government promises that it will no longer be sacrificed at the altar of economic growth. In March and again over the summer, the army is said to have received billions of dollars in additional funding, prompted first by an order that it stop its profitable business activities and later by increased security concerns following the war in Kosovo and NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

The army showed off dozens of new weapons in today's parade, including a new long-distance missile that can be fitted with nuclear warheads and whose range extends throughout Asia--and to Alaska as well. Of the 25 weapons systems mounted on trucks, only a handful had been seen by Westerners before. Goose-stepping in crisp formation, wearing spanking new uniforms, stern-faced and shouting "We serve the people!" the military also revealed six new branches, including marines, an army reserve and a special police force.

The parade, the first such military display in Beijing since 1989, recalled the days when the Soviet army would each year unveil new weapons in Moscow's Red Square. But China's forces did not surprise military analysts. While the army has kept its hardware under tight wraps, Western officials have known about its advances.

At the same time, the forces snaking down the Avenue of Eternal Peace represented a carefully choreographed attempt to put Washington and Taipei on notice that China intends, no matter what, to reunite with Taiwan. Beijing considers Taiwan-- the island where the Nationalist Party retreated in 1949 after losing the civil war that brought Mao Zedong to power--a renegade province.

"The issue of Taiwan can not be delayed indefinitely," read a prominently displayed banner.

Although the parade was not originally intended to focus on Taiwan, relations between Taipei and Beijing have deteriorated rapidly over the past three months. Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, announced in July that he wanted to establish "special state-to-state" relations with China, abandoning a decades-old "one China" policy under which Beijing and Taipei carried on relations but did not recognize each other. After Lee's statement, China's leadership asked the military to devise a response, according to military analysts. An idea was floated to allow the parade to speak for China's strength. Since then China's state-run press, particularly the People's Liberation Army Daily, has reflected this goal.

The idea was to create an awesome picture--soldiers marching with frozen looks on their faces, saying they will pay any price--to scare an enemy.

China's military brass set the parade as one of the military's four main tasks for 1999, a point stressed in March by the chief of staff, Gen. Fu Quanyou, and again by Defense Minister Gen. Chi Haotian in July. Military officers began winnowing candidates for the parade last year. Soldiers judged too short or too tall--and those who could not snap their arms with the proper tempo--were rejected.

Since January, troops have been seen coming into the capital to practice. And since March, military vehicles were noticed following routes around the city. The military leadership was intensely involved in planning. The commander of the parade, Li Xinliang, is one of the highest ranking generals in China and the chief of one of China's seven military districts.

Among the weapons systems, several were of interest to military experts.

First was the Dongfeng-31 rocket, which has a range of 5,000 miles. It is mobile and will eventually be able to carry multiple nuclear warheads. China tested it in August and it is expected to be ready to use within two years.

Military analysts said that by wheeling out the DF-31, along with its shorter-range cousin, the DF-21--along with two other missile systems that Beijing has sold to Iran, the M9 and M11--China was sending a signal that it has the equipment to deter American interference in its 50-year quest to reunite with Taiwan. Scores of M9 missiles, with a range of 435 miles, have been deployed near China's coast that faces Taiwan.

Military analysts also pointed out that the parade--which included a surface-to-air missile modeled on France's Crotale and C801 and C802 anti-ship missiles that China has also sold to Iran--could also function as a mobile advertisement for Chinese weapons. China is still believed to be involved in weapons sales to dozens of countries, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Burma and North Korea.

Missiles make up the bulk of China's strategic advantage in Asia. Although its other services, such as infantry and air force, are considered thinly developed, its missiles are a great equalizer.

Beijing also exhibited today, during several flyovers of Tiananmen Square, that it now has in-flight refueling technology, which has eluded China for years. This technology will allow China's air force to have an even bigger influence in events unfolding in the South China Sea, most of which China claims as its territory.

Western military experts noted that China's anniversary boosterism comes at a time when the army is facing serious problems, some caused by corruption and others by the shock of transforming from a "people's army" into a modern fighting force. By the end of this year, for example, the military was supposed to have shed 500,000 troops, but it will miss this deadline because it cannot find civilian jobs for the demobilized soldiers.

The army was also supposed to have stopped its extensive involvement in business by now. But divestment is going slowly and military experts estimate this process could take years. A plan by the army to contract with civilian agencies for food and other services is also facing challenges. And its attempt to reform its weapons acquisition program and the draft are behind schedule, even with the extra budget allocations in recent months.

"The [army's] needs are so sweeping and comprehensive that any increase, even as much as $10 billion, will have to be spread pretty thin," said David Shambaugh, a specialist on the Chinese military at George Washington University and the Brookings Institution. "But, when resources are short, symbols can help alleviate the pain--and this is what the parade has helped to do, raise the status of the military in society and showcase it for the Communist Party."