Size does matter, and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the largest in the world. China’s active military and paramilitary forces number over three million, and can call ten million more militiamen and reservist if necessary. Theoretically, all healthy young men must join at age 18 and women are encouraged to enlist in service and support corps.
The Chinese military lags in budget and technology; however, until recently, the Chinese armed forces was marked by inadequate infrastructure and obsolete equipment, largely inherited from the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, China launched a massive campaign to upgrade its military technology, but progress has been slow: with its military budget stretched across such a large standing force, China has had to focus on spending its money where it will make the most difference. Though their aging AK-47 variants are gradually being replaced with modern rifles, the biggest bang for the buck is found elsewhere.
The real advances in China’s war technology have come under the heading of research and development, which are not technically part of the defense budget. By some estimates, China expends more than twice as much annually on military research as on the official military budget. Much of this budget goes into development of the space program, headed by the Central Military Commission: the planned space station and Lunar landing have obvious military value. China is also investing heavily in fusion research, despite already possessing an undisclosed number of nuclear weapons. Some countries, particularly the US, have accused China of hiding an advanced weapons program behind a veil of pure science.
The PLA maintains an excellent intelligence program, countering what it sees as ubiquitous subversion and infiltration by the Western nations of the world; technological and industrial advances are favorite targets. The PLA also pays close attention to new developments in asymmetrical warfare, just in case it needs to fight a large, well-equipped, and well-financed enemy while minimizing expenditures of material and infrastructure.
Taiwan is located on a large island off the east coast of China-and it is the last stronghold of the government that existed on the mainland before the Chinese Communist Party seized control in 1949. It has long been a thorn in China’s side. Though most United Nations’ members state initially recognized Taiwan as the “real” China, most sovereign nations now regard the People’s Republic of China as the rightful Chinese government. Many do not recognize the existence of Taiwan at all, as China pressures its allies and trade partners not to recognize Taiwan as an independent country. China considers Taiwan to be a wayward province of the People’s Republic, against which forcible reunification would be justified. A political and military reclamation campaign may not be far off.
China remains a nation in flux, and has undergone considerable liberalization since the 1980s. Today, it’s slowly becoming less a communist country and more…something else. The 1990s brought the downfall of sometime ally and sometime enemy Soviet Union, as well as a surge of increased cultural and economic contact with Western nations. With the spread of the Internet, Beijing is finding it impossible to control completely the spread of news and ideas. If China finds itself unable to change with the times, it may bring on a war that would rock all of Asia and perhaps the world.