A recent video from Sichuan Province in the People’s Republic of China shows many young Chinese men marching in fatigues. The reason behind this was a send-off that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) does throughout the country for new recruits. In this case, though, the reason the video has been circulating around the internet is because of the massive number of new Chinese recruits this year.
For the record, most US intelligence assessments put the size of China’s military to be around 2.8 million personnel (troops, airmen, and sailors).
Further, most estimates believe China’s navy to have around 350 surface ships and submarines (compared to the US Navy’s 293 warships and submarines), making the Chinese navy the largest in the world.
China’s air force is cited as the third-largest in the world and is believed to be staffed by 480,000 people and possess nearly 4,000 airplanes. China’s ballistic missile force is increasingly sophisticated, large, and is known to pose a direct threat to US Air Force and naval forces.
More importantly, China’s military has developed advanced methods for depriving the Americans of their vaunted advantage in space, threatening the US in the cyber domain, and possibly disrupting the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum to sabotage American forces, should war between the two great powers erupt.
Of course, detractors argue that the quality of China’s military is poor and that much of their forces have been untested in direct combat since 1979, when China attacked its neighbor in Vietnam—and subsequently lost the war.
Although, Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation believes that China’s forces learned critical lessons in that war that they subsequently applied to their forces, making those new Chinese forces much deadlier.
And it’s always important to remember the old communist dictum that “quantity has a quality all of its own.” What’s more, any conflict with China would be waged close to China’s shores and far from America, giving the PLA “homefield advantage” as it were.
What’s Behind the PLA’s Recruitment Push
According to a firsthand account (from a Chinese dissident), the PLA attracted a record 10 million new recruits in 2023, largely because so many young Chinese men cannot find gainful employment in the current economic malaise afflicting the PLA.
Since COVID-19 (in my opinion, at least) emanated from Wuhan, China, and President Xi Jinping imposed harsh lockdown protocols, the Chinese economy has teetered on the brink.
Notably, China’s real estate market—a key driver of China’s overall economy—has been in severe decline for years.
Further, the ongoing US-China tech war, and all the international restrictions associated with that movement, has damaged China’s lucrative (and competitive) technology market.
Because of this, large numbers of young Chinese are in dire economic straits.
They need the safety and security of a job that can only come from government service. And, as many young Americans struggling financially know, joining their country’s military is a surefire way to create some economic safety and stability for a young person who otherwise lacks that.
The internal pressures of China’s socioeconomic situation are now being felt by the upper echelons of China’s communist rulers, notably President Xi.
As leader, Xi has taken the extraordinary step of aggregating more power toward himself than any Chinese leader has since Mao Zedong stalked the halls of power in Beijing. Xi is also the most ideologically communist ruler that China has had since Mao.
Turning Crisis to Opportunity
When things are going well for China, this means that Xi is given immense praise and his power and standing in the wider nation is enhanced. When things start to go sour in China, such as they started to in 2019, when former President Donald J. Trump initiated his trade war over agricultural goods with China and when Hong Kong erupted in pro-democracy demonstrations, Xi was increasingly blamed for the instability.
Since that time, the political situation in China has gotten tenser.
The COVID-19 lockdowns and subsequent economic downturn has placed not only China’s Communist Party (CCP) into a serious dilemma. The situation has placed Xi Jinping himself in the proverbial hot seat.
Plus, Xi’s ideological rigidity means that he is incapable of looking to past examples, such as those that Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao provide, of softening the edges of communist rule in China by being friendlier and more open with the West on trade matters.
Or, as Deng once articulated in his 24-Character Strategy, “Bide one’s time and hide one’s capabilities.” Xi wants none of this. It appears that a core element of his grand strategy is to effectively strut on the world stage.
There’s a reason, though, that same word to describe “crisis” in Mandarin is also used for “opportunity.” Xi is the living embodiment of this ethos.
After all, any other ruler in China’s long history, facing the same problems that he has faced since 2019, would have buckled under the pressure or been overthrown.
Instead, Xi has walked away from each situation more politically powerful than the last. And while that means he will be blamed even more for whatever failures come next, it gives the Chinese ruler immense maneuvering room to accomplish his agenda.
Unlike the previous CCP leaders I mentioned, Xi is not as interested in getting rich as he is in furthering his power. For all the caterwauling about the declining economic conditions in China, the fact is that China now has the ability to refocus its energies on military and strategic matters.
This explains why China’s regime has been directing their agriculture industry to stockpile grains and other foodstuffs in ways that are economically unsound, but militarily propitious.
So, too, has China judiciously expanded its investment in military technologies and, as you read above, is rapidly expanding the size of its forces. This is not just military Keynesianism on display (trying to prop up a failing civilian economy by employing large numbers of people in government jobs, such as the military).
It’s a cynical ploy by Xi Jinping to have his ideological cake and eat it, too.
Consider that most revolutions are waged by young men who cannot find a meaningful existence in the established order. By using his imploding economy as an excuse to ramp up both his own control over China as well as recruitment for China’s military, Xi is both ridding the streets in China of young men who might pose a threat to his continued rule and is repurposing them toward Xi’s ultimate goal of capturing neighboring Taiwan.
In so doing, Xi believes he will be able to deflect his people’s growing uneasiness with his shambolic rule by giving them a major foreign policy and ideological victory by capturing Taiwan, whose nominal independence has dogged Chinese rulers since the late 1940s.
The Dragon is Now Ready to Strike: China and a Taiwan War
Make no mistake: the conditions now are ripe for Xi Jinping and China to initiate a dangerous, devastating war against his democratic neighbors in Taiwan. The West erroneously believes that China’s military will not be prepared for an invasion of Taiwan until 2027 at the earliest.
This is wishful thinking on the part of America’s military leadership, which has been stymied both by domestic political concerns as well as poor leadership and improperly allocated resources for many years.
The fact is that 2027 is the earliest that the Pentagon could reliably assist in the defense of Taiwan. Xi Jinping and his advisers know this.
That’s why Xi is unlikely to oblige the Americans by waiting until 2027 to launch his attack on Taiwan, not when the political and economic conditions are ripe for Xi Jinping to reach for what he believes to be his destiny now.
A 19FortyFive Senior Editor, Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as at the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life (Encounter Books), and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy (July 23). Weichert occasionally serves as a Subject Matter Expert for various organizations, including the Department of Defense. He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon. He is an opinion writer for 19FortyFive.