World leaders and citizens watch as China displays military might during a parade to mark 70 years of victory over Japan in World War II. (Reuters)

At a military parade Thursday to mark the end of World War II, President Xi Jinping announced that China will cut some 300,000 soldiers from the country’s 2-million-strong armed forces, a move that would accelerate his campaign to modernize the military, shifting resources from land to sea and air.

Xi pitched the cuts, and indeed, the entire event, as a peace offering — a tough sell given growing concerns in Asia and around the world about China’s maritime claims and military might.

The parade featured 12,000 troops, high-tech weapons gleaming in the sun, and a 70-gun salute. There were also olive branches, floral arrangements in the shape of doves and talk of the “sunshine of peace.”

“Regardless of the progress of events, China will never seek hegemony, China will never seek to expand and will never inflict the tragedies it suffered in the past upon others,” Xi said before he inspected the troops.

The public spectacle was part militarism, part memorial — a complicated bit of messaging that reflected the Communist Party’s conflicted view of history and its search for a narrative to carry the country through the years ahead.

At home, the parade was an effort to instill political loyalty and national pride — the fulfillment of Xi’s vision of a “rejuvenated” nation. As China’s economy struggles, the parade gave the country’s leaders a chance to look powerful, to stand tall and say, “Look how far we’ve come.”

For the outside world, the parade was supposed to be a show of strength, a goose-stepping, saber-rattling reminder that the strong, respected China of today is not the country that suffered mightily during World War II.

That message was somewhat muted because certain foreign luminaries did not attend: Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korean President Park Geun-hye joined dignitaries from 30 countries in the grandstands, but top leaders from Allied powers the United States, Britain and France did not — wary, perhaps, of being present at an event that could demonize their partner ­Japan or of being photographed watching tanks rolling through Tiananmen Square.

In this sense, the parade was about much more than what happened 70 years ago.

“It’s all about World War II, but it’s also not about World War II at all,” Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Program at the University of California at San Diego, said in the run-up to the event.

Recasting history

To the extent that the event, a public holiday, was about history, it was about reclaiming and recasting China’s role in the war. China says its contribution to the fight against Japan has been overlooked and wants to call international attention to its wartime struggles and its “hugely crucial” role in the Allied victory.

Although China often criticizes Japan’s “incorrect” view of history, China’s leaders take liberties in telling their country’s story. Most historians agree, for instance, that it was Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces, not Mao Zedong’s communists, that led the fight against the Japanese — a fact the Chinese Communist Party has tended to play down or ignore.

Last month, a much-mocked poster for a state-backed film about the Cairo Declaration, a 1943 statement by Allied leaders that set out plans for defeating Japan, featured a picture of Mao — even though it was Chiang Kai-shek, not Mao, who was present.

Official histories have long vilified Nationalist fighters. This year, some veterans from the Nationalist army were invited to play a role in the parade, as part of what Rana Mitter, a professor of Chinese history at Oxford University and the author of “Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945,” sees as a broadening of China’s narrative about the war.

“For the last 30 years or more, China has been searching for an ideology that will bind the nation together after the failure of the Cultural Revolution,” Mitter said. “This is about the war as part of a binding national identity.”

The state was also signaling how it sees itself — as a China that is on equal footing with the likes of the United States. “They are saying, ‘Look, the U.S. may have delivered the coup de grace — but,’ ” said John Delury, a scholar of China and Korea at Yonsei University in Seoul. “The war gets recast as the beginning of the wealth and power era for China, as a moment of transition from humiliation to rejuvenation.”

Pomp and patriotism

The parade was also about rallying the troops.

Xi, the son of a revolutionary hero, has moved quickly to consolidate power, waging an anti-corruption campaign that has toppled generals. By giving the military a chance to strut its stuff, he was encouraging loyalty and projecting an image of strength and unity, observers said.

“In the experience of the Chinese Communist Party, the regime’s power comes from guns,” said Chinese historian Zhang ­Lifan. “To hold on to the regime and his personal power and position, it is very important for [Xi] to have control over the armed forces.”

Said Shirk, of the 21st Century China Program, “The military is going to love this, because they are going to feel how far they’ve come — from the baggy-suited peasant army of 40 years ago to a very capable modern military today.”

Although birds were chased from the capital’s skies in preparation for the air show component of the parade, the commemoration’s logo featured five doves to symbolize a people “flying to a future of great rejuvenation under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.”

With the stock market in crisis and the government scrambling to keep up, the parade and the three-day national holiday may be a welcome distraction, said Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor of government at Cornell University and the author of “Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations.”

“At a time when there has been a lot of bad news, the focus on China’s military prowess is quite convenient,” she said.

A warning?

In foreign-relations terms, however, the timing of the ­parade was not ideal. The event came amid regional tension over rival maritime claims and just ahead of Xi’s high-profile visit to the United States.

Recently, some voices in the government have tried to dial back the more flagrant anti-
Japanese rhetoric, even denying that the event had anything to do with Japan.

Replying to questions about why representatives of Japan were not attending, Chinese ­Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said the parade was “not specifically aimed at any country, not aimed at Japan or the Japanese people, and has nothing to do with the China-
Japan relations.”

But Shen Dingli, a professor and associate dean at the Institute of International Studies at China’s Fudan University, said the parade had much to do with Japan — and, as such, with the United States.

“We are telling Japan, ‘Last time you invaded us, we fought you and we won. If you don’t behave in the future, we will fight you again and win again. And we are showing you what weapons we’ll be using to win,’ ” he said. “Should Japan invade again in the future, China will fight it, and if the U.S. stands with Japan, China will fight both of them.”

Xu Yanjingjing, Gu Jinglu and Liu Liu contributed to this report.