At the end of October, Chinese leader Xi Jinping extended his role with a report that touted what China had achieved, and laid out a vision for the following years. The prepared spectacle was not surprising for China watchers. However, what surprised them was the unveiled lists for the roster of leaders were filled with President Xi’s confidants, and all top positions within the party and state apparatus were occupied by them. Those lists implied that Xi has progressively tightened his grip on power, and projected an ambitious China to the international community. Although China looks more ambitious and confident, under the guise of a powerful China deep anxiety is being masked.

From President Xi’s perspective, China is facing mounting security threats, such as a hostile Washington, problematic relations with its neighbors like India and claimant states in the South China Sea, never mind other allies with the US such as Japan, South Korea, and the AUKUS. Otherwise, Xi is aware that the People’s Liberation Army has a long way to go to fully modernize, so he needs the PLA to be well-prepared and stronger. Thus, He set the blueprint of the modernization plan within some targets in 2027, 2035, and 2049. For Xi, he understands China cannot yet defeat its rivals, so he needs more opportunities to achieve his goals of “deploying on a regular basis and in diversified ways” and being “steadfast and flexible.”

To achieve those goals, China is grasping the chance to increase its combat experience, because the PLA doesn’t have any real largescale combat experience since the 1979 Sino-Vietnam conflict. Meanwhile, those goals also show that China is more pleased to use its armed forces for political purposes. For example, after the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, China deployed an unprecedented military exercise to blockade Taiwan, flexed its muscles as a proof of its displeasure, and honed its skills at the same time simulating their capacity to enforce a blockade around the island. Even though China is ambitious, this overconfidence exposes their Achilles’ heel . The long way to full modernization and the lack of experience in modern joint military operations means China will only take actions with its neighbors that resemble its past moves, and is likely to avoid triggering a full-blown conflict.

Except for the difficulty of army modernization, China faces hurdles ahead externally and internally. Externally, PLA strategists are avoiding triggering potential chain reaction warfare. For example, if China plans to invade Taiwan, India may simultaneously reclaim territory along the contested border, and domestic turmoil may be demagogued by Xi’s enemies. Internally, the PLA is struggling to improve the quality of its personnel. Five years ago, Xi cut 300,000 soldiers from the PLA and emphasized the importance of operational command, science and technology. However, China’s military budget is still increasing, and China’s GDP is uncertain at the same time. Maintaining high-quality soldiers and ensuring the PLA can advance technology for next-generation military platforms are important for China to seek parity with the US, but this development may be challenged by economic hurdles.

Now President Xi has surrounded himself with confidants, and they may cause a misstep of the PLA’s development, with sycophants aiming to please their leader rather than reporting honestly. Although Xi seems to realize that China is still not strong enough to secure all of its periphery, his confidants may gradually make him overconfident in thinking that China can manage future crises well, and learning the wrong lessons from the invasion of Ukraine may trigger challenges with China’s neighboring states in the future.

Written by Eddie C.

Edited by Ari B.