A recent video emerging from Sichuan Province in the People’s Republic of China has garnered significant attention online. The footage captures numerous young Chinese men clad in military fatigues marching in formation. The spectacle, in this instance, was part of a send-off tradition organized by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for its new recruits. However, what makes this video particularly noteworthy is the sheer magnitude of new recruits joining the PLA this year.
For reference, most US intelligence assessments estimate the size of China’s military to be approximately 2.8 million personnel, encompassing troops, airmen, and sailors. Additionally, the Chinese navy is believed to possess around 350 surface ships and submarines, surpassing the US Navy’s 293 warships and submarines, thus ranking as the world’s largest naval force. China’s air force is also recognized as the third-largest globally, boasting a staff of 480,000 individuals and a fleet of nearly 4,000 aircraft. Notably, China’s ballistic missile force is both substantial and technologically advanced, posing a direct threat to US Air Force and naval assets.
Moreover, China’s military has demonstrated its proficiency in countering American advantages in space, cybersecurity, and potentially disrupting the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, a capability that could prove detrimental to American forces in the event of a conflict between the two superpowers.
Critics contend that the quality of China’s military remains questionable, given the lack of direct combat experience since the 1979 conflict with Vietnam, which ended in Chinese defeat. However, experts like Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation argue that China has gleaned valuable lessons from that war, enhancing the effectiveness of its new forces. Additionally, the geographical proximity of any potential conflict with China would provide the PLA with a “homefield advantage.”
The surge in PLA recruitment in 2023, amounting to an astounding 10 million new recruits, can be attributed to the economic challenges faced by many young Chinese men. The economic downturn in China, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and stringent lockdowns, has pushed the nation’s economy to the brink. The real estate sector, a vital contributor to China’s overall economy, has experienced a protracted decline, and the US-China tech war has strained China’s technology market. Consequently, a significant portion of China’s youth finds themselves in dire financial straits, seeking economic security through government service, akin to young Americans who turn to military service for financial stability.
These economic pressures have not escaped the notice of China’s leadership, particularly President Xi Jinping, who has consolidated power to a degree not seen since Mao Zedong’s era. Xi’s rigid communist ideology and assertive approach on the global stage have received both praise and blame, depending on China’s economic fortunes.
The COVID-19 pandemic, trade tensions with the US, and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests have intensified political tensions within China. Xi’s unwavering commitment to communist principles and lack of interest in Deng Xiaoping’s more conciliatory approach to the West has left him facing immense challenges. However, Xi has adeptly leveraged these crises into opportunities to consolidate his power.
In contrast to his predecessors, Xi prioritizes power over personal wealth. Despite concerns about China’s economic conditions, the country has redirected its focus toward military and strategic endeavors. China’s efforts include stockpiling grains and food supplies, even at the expense of economic prudence, and expanding investments in military technologies while rapidly increasing the size of its military forces.
Xi Jinping’s approach involves using economic turmoil as a pretext to bolster his control over China and recruit for the military. This strategy not only removes potentially dissatisfied young men from China’s streets but also aligns them with Xi’s goal of capturing Taiwan, which has remained a longstanding aspiration for the Chinese government since the late 1940s.
The current circumstances have set the stage for Xi Jinping and China to initiate a potentially perilous conflict with democratic Taiwan. Contrary to Western assessments that suggest China may not be prepared for such an invasion until 2027, Xi is unlikely to wait. He recognizes that 2027 is the earliest date the Pentagon could reliably aid in Taiwan’s defense. Thus, the convergence of political and economic conditions compels Xi to pursue his vision of destiny sooner rather than later.