Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | China could be eying military gains from the pandemic

The viral outbreak of covid-19, or coronavirus, that triggered a global pandemic is showing no signs of abating, but the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), which was the source of the virus is confident it has weathered the worst of the pandemic. At the forefront of the fight against the virus was the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). PLA troops were deployed extensively to arrest the spread of the respiratory illness and in all probability, despite official denials, the virus potentially infected a sizeable number of troops deployed in and around the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the viral infection and the Hubei province. Wuhan also happens to be a major submarine-building centre, with orders from Pakistan and Thailand. The two putative factors behind this ostensible “recovery" are repression and secrecy, which enabled the Chinese state to conceal the extent of the infections among PLA troops. In addition, the Chinese military is flexing its muscles and may see an opportunity for pressing claims more robustly in the South China Sea (SCS) and even seeing an opportunity in targeting Taiwan. Thus, three issues are worth examining when it comes to China’s response to the viral outbreak. First, how affected are the PLA personnel from the viral infection. Second, what is the extent of productivity losses and gains of Wuhan’s military industrial capacity and finally, what are the opportunities created by the pandemic for potential Chinese military action.

The military’s role in containing the spread of the covid-19 does appear to have helped ease its worst effects. Nevertheless, reports indicate that at least several hundred PLA soldiers were likely infected. Wuhan is the headquarter of the PLA Logistic Support Force (PLALSF), whose service members are likely to have co-mingled with the local population, making it highly implausible that at least select units of the service were unaffected. Wuhan is also a major railway hub and the units within the Peoples Armed Police (PAP) are unlikely to have escaped the infection given their involvement in brutally enforcing the lockdown. In addition, notwithstanding the extensive expertise within the PLA in biological and chemical warfare, the PLASF medical units involved in the containment of the virus could not have escaped infection given the inherently high transmissibility of covid-19.

The PRC is also revving up its military production capabilities from its Wuhan military industrial hub. Although not a coastal city, Wuhan is located close to the Yangtze river over 800km from the sea but serves as a waterway to the East China Sea. Chinese submarine production has increased to meet orders from Thailand and Pakistan recently. The city is home to the Wuchang Ship Building Group, and several engineering and technical institutions that directly support the Chinese military’s needs—covering electromagnetic catapults for aircraft carriers and railguns and submarine technology—and service Beijing’s defence exports. There are indications that China has managed to limit the spread of the virus in key military-industrial clusters, which has helped meet its delivery commitments. However, full-scale military-industrial production will take a few months to restore. Even so, it would be an impressive recovery. Meanwhile, the rest of the advanced industrialized world would still be limping back to normalcy by the time China completes its recovery. Yet, this is a speculative scenario and China could still face constraints due to a lack of sufficient import demand for its military hardware. The Chinese regime’s fears of a renewed round of infections is also likely to forestall a revival in the country’s defence production.

Finally, the pandemic presents China with an opportunity to flex its military muscle by pressing the PRC’s outstanding territorial claims. The sinking of the Vietnamese fishing trawler recently is illustrative of Beijing’s aggressiveness. Beijing also conducted military exercises in March in the SCS. Both regional and extra-regional powers in the Indo-Pacific are distracted because virtually every country across the world has been affected by covid-19, preoccupying them with efforts to arrest its spread. Regardless of Beijing’s fervent denials, the coronavirus, by default, has provided Beijing a chance to secure military gains. The pandemic has potentially created diversionary benefits for the Communist Party of China (CPC), enabling it to divert attention away from its failure in containing the outbreak and shore up the legitimacy of its regime, by appealing to nationalistic sentiment and playing victim before its people through the selective use of the international opprobrium Beijing has had to endure in recent weeks. On the other hand, a potent extra-regional power such as the US, despite its forward deployed presence in East Asia, finds itself on the backfoot, if not at an outright disadvantage. Unlike Chinese naval and air forces, their most potent foe—the US Navy (USN), is constrained both by infection aboard one of its aircraft carriers and the tyranny of distance. China’s forces, however, operate closer to the mainland. While the USN can replenish American naval forces operating in the SCS and East China Sea from its bases in Japan and Guam, they are nevertheless disadvantaged as crew aboard vessels of its Pacific fleet could also be infected by the coronavirus, limiting replacement possibilities. Lacking instantly available crew on standby and being located at a considerable distance from the American mainland, the USN is constrained where Beijing is not, giving the Chinese leadership a military opportunity.

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. The CPC seems to have internalized this dictum going by the way it is using its military to make creeping gains while the rest of the world remains busy in managing the life and death of its populace. But whether it would allow Beijing to make long-term gains in its search for a great power status still remains to be seen.

Harsh V. Pant and Kartik Bommakanti are, respectively, professor of international relations at King's College, London and an associate fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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