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Xi Jinping vs. the PLA: A Power Struggle with International Stakes

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Xi Jinping’s struggle with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China presents a multifaceted and ominous situation, both internally for China and externally for global stability. His determined efforts to reshape the military through purging senior commanders signal a pursuit for a force that aligns closely with his aggressive strategic ambitions. This internal conflict within the upper echelons of China’s military leadership not only threatens the stability of Xi’s regime but also amplifies the risk of a major international conflict, potentially dragging the United States into a third world war.

Gordon Chang, a senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute, emphasizes the unique nature of this internal power struggle. He points out that many of China’s generals appear reluctant to engage in combat, a sentiment that contradicts Xi’s vision for the military. “There is a sense that many of China’s general officers don’t want to fight,” Chang states, underscoring a significant divide between the military’s leadership and Xi’s expectations. This discord presents a serious challenge to Xi, who has embarked on a comprehensive overhaul of the PLA since 2012. His reforms aim to streamline the military, enhance civilian-military cooperation, and restructure its command hierarchy.

The dismissal of nine senior officers on December 29, 2023, marked a critical juncture in Xi’s campaign to gain control over the military. While these dismissals were officially attributed to anti-corruption efforts, analysts like Chang see them as a strategic move to eliminate dissent and ensure loyalty among the ranks. The case of Chinese Air Force General Liu Yazhou, who received a suspended death sentence in February 2022 after cautioning against an invasion of Taiwan, illustrates the severe consequences faced by those in the military who oppose Xi’s aggressive stance.

Joel Wuthnow, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University, argues that purging the military of corruption and preparing for war are goals that align with Xi’s broader strategy. “The removals indicate that Xi should be concerned about the quality of people and equipment he has invested in over the last decade,” Wuthnow explains, highlighting the critical role of the military’s readiness in Xi’s plans.

But the elephant in the room is one that no one is talking about. What if Xi’s military officers decide on a coup instead of capitulating? What if military officers whom Xi wants to remove decides that he has enough power to resist?

This internal conflict within the PLA occurs against a backdrop of increasing regional tensions and territorial disputes. China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea, the Himalayas, and near Taiwan have heightened concerns about a possible military conflict in East Asia. Xi’s rhetoric, especially regarding Taiwan, further escalates these tensions. In his New Year’s address, Xi stated, “China will surely be reunified, and all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should be bound by a common sense of purpose and share in the glory of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” This assertive stance was reinforced during a meeting with President Biden, where Xi reportedly expressed China’s intention to take control of Taiwan.

The consequences of Xi’s internal struggle with the military and his external ambitions are far-reaching. A potential invasion of Taiwan, for instance, would have significant geopolitical implications. The United States, bound by its commitments to Taiwan, could be drawn into a direct conflict with China, escalating into a broader international confrontation.

Chang highlights the global context of these developments, drawing parallels with the period leading up to World War II. “Remember, in the 1930s, there were separate wars that merged into what we now call World War II,” he says, suggesting that current conflicts could similarly converge into a global conflict.

However, Xi’s aggressive approach is not without its risks. Wuthnow notes that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has had significant repercussions for Vladimir Putin, a cautionary tale for Xi. A failed military venture could be politically disastrous, potentially destabilizing Xi’s position and sparking internal unrest.

Xi Jinping’s internal conflict with China’s military leadership and his assertive foreign policy pose significant risks. The discord within the PLA, combined with regional tensions and Xi’s willingness to use military force, create a volatile situation that could have catastrophic consequences.

Xi must improve his military to further his plans of international domination. To do this, Xi must risk removing powerful military figures, each of whom has a lifetime of loyalties and alliances that might form into a coalition against Xi.

Many are concerned about the international repercussions. Xi must worry about both the internal and the external repercussions.

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