Out of a world-topping population of more than 1.3 billion, more than 600 million men and women are estimated to be fit for military service, with some 130 million more available to serve if need be. Each year, nearly 20 million more reach military age. Men 18 to 24 years old have selective compulsory military service with a two-year obligation; women 18 to 19 years old who meet criteria for select military jobs (including, recently, combat roles) may also be selected. Children younger than 18 can volunteer for the military with no minimum age. All officers are promoted from the voluntary ranks. There are more active personnel - nearly 2.3 million - than any other military in the world.
The People's Liberation Army, which dates back to 1927 and is divided into seven military regions, encompasses ground forces, the navy, marines, air force, state police, the Second Artillery Corps (a strategic missile force), and reserves. Military leaders report to both the state and the Communist Party Central Military Commissions. The current chairman is Hu Jintao, also president of China.
The fighting forces have evolved over time from a massive ground-based operation to a smaller, more strategic, mobile and technologically-advanced force; the PRC reportedly spends about $160 billion per year on military development. China is aiming for a complete overhaul by 2020, leading the way with naval development and pushing forward with its J-20 stealth fighter program to phase out antiquated equipment with modern hardware.
GlobalFirepower.com ranks countries on military strength, and China was No. 3 for 2011 behind the United States and Russia. With a defense budget of $100 billion, more than 4,000 aircraft, nearly 600 ships, and nearly 23,000 land weapons, China's military power is also backed by a huge labor force at home to provide logistical support. While China doesn't currently have any aircraft carriers, a 2011 Pentagon report predicts that Beijing will build "multiple" in the next decade. The report also pinpoints deterrence of independence in Taiwan as a "main strategic direction" for the PLA, and also notes new carrier-killing ballistic missiles and a vow to be dominant in space.
"China’s rise as a major international actor is likely to stand out as a defining feature of the strategic landscape of the early 21st century," the report stated.
China, meanwhile, uses its state-controlled publications to sound off angrily against any assertions that its modernization and military buildup is for any aggressive purpose. "The allegation is an utterly cock-and-bull story about the Chinese military based on a wild guess and illogical reasoning," Xinhua said in August 2011 after the release of the Pentagon report. "...China has no intention or interest to beget any enemies or antagonistic rivals in the world."
Another element of China's military power is cyberwarfare. The Blue Army online unit was established with the announced goal of protecting the PLA from cyberattacks, but concerns have been raised among other world powers that the cyber soldiers will also be utilized to launch attacks on other nations. The U.S. director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said in 2011 testimony that the "substantial investment" China has made in its cyberwarfare and intelligence gathering efforts is "a very formidable concern."