Beijing – Chinese leader Xi Jinping is engaged in a bold power play to reshape the Chinese military and install generals who are ready and willing to wage war, analysts say. This has raised concerns that Xi may be planning military action, possibly against Taiwan, that could draw the United States and its allies into conflict.
Since taking power in 2012, Xi has undertaken sweeping reforms to strengthen his control over China’s 2.3 million member armed forces, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). But his boldest move came on December 29, when he abruptly fired nine top generals in one day – an unprecedented purge of the military’s senior ranks.
The sacked generals included commanders of China’s Rocket Force, which controls its nuclear and conventional missiles, and air force officers overseeing some of the country’s most advanced fighter jets and weapons systems. The Central Military Commission offered no explanation beyond citing the need to punish “gravely disloyal” and corrupt officers.
But experts say the motives run deeper, reflecting Xi’s frustration with commanders he views as reluctant to carry out his aggressive agenda.
Xi is trying to install generals who are prepared for combat,” said Gordon Chang, an expert on the Chinese military and author of a book titled ‘China is Going to War’. “He senses many currently are not ready or willing to fight.”
Joel Wuthnow, a PLA analyst at the U.S. National Defense University, agrees Xi likely axed generals he doubted would perform well in battle. But he says this aligns with Xi’s goal of making the PLA a leaner, more combat-ready force.
“If senior officers and the equipment they’re in charge of fail, that jeopardizes China’s ability to prevail in a conflict,” Wuthnow said.
Under Xi, China has undertaken major military upgrades while adopting a more assertive posture abroad. It has stepped up air and sea patrols around Taiwan and constructed military outposts on disputed islands in the South China Sea. Xi has also made acquiring Taiwan a core strategic objective.
Chang believes the stage is being set for a major conflict over Taiwan, though he says the spark could come from any one of China’s regional flashpoints.
Separate wars could merge into a world war, like in the 1930s,” Chang said. He noted Xi has even cited Ukraine, where China has backed Russia’s invasion, as one of the “countryside battles” distracting the United States as Beijing encircles its main rival.
A miscalculation over Taiwan, with its key semiconductor industry and ties to western allies, could be catastrophic. One senior Chinese general already threatened the U.S. with nuclear war if it defended the self-governing island from attack.
Xi himself has broken with decades of strategic ambiguity to openly vow reunification with Taiwan. At November’s G20 summit, he reportedly told President Biden that China would use force over Taiwan if necessary.
But Xi’s recent purge of the military brass has paradoxically stoked concerns that he may not entirely trust his own armed forces. It suggests China’s military modernization over the past two decades has failed to produce commanders Xi feels confident will execute his orders.
Wuthnow believes the Ukraine war may have actually made Xi more wary of a Taiwan invasion, as he saw how Russia’s aggression backfired diplomatically and bolstered NATO.
But with Xi now poised to extend his rule indefinitely, the risk remains that the 69-year-old leader may rush into a conflict he sees as his legacy. Handpicked generals promoted to replace purged commanders could reinforce Xi’s bent toward confrontation.
“Xi is talking himself into war through his rhetoric,” Chang said. “And his political enemies will be blamed if China ends up in one.”
The stakes go beyond Taiwan. Experts warn a U.S.-China war, even if limited to Asia, could escalate uncontrollably. Nuclear brinkmanship, economic turmoil, uncontrolled refugee flows and global supply chain disruptions would follow.
Washington for decades has managed tensions with Beijing to avoid such an outcome. But Xi’s tightening grip on power and drive to settle historical scores have raised the chance that misunderstandings could turn into open conflict.
For now, the Biden administration hopes increased dialogue will keep tensions with Beijing in check. But Xi’s campaign to control the military means more voices of restraint in China are being sidelined.