Experts: PLA surprisingly on sidelines in coronavirus pandemic
Top Stories | Mar 22, 2020:
A lackluster response by the Chinese military in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, potentially slowed containment and concealed large-scale disruptions in the military supply chain and the country’s industrial sectors, defense experts contend.
Although the People’s Republic of China (PRC) inserted the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into previous national emergencies, the “PLA has been kept largely offline throughout the COVID-19 crisis,” a February 2020 report in Jane’s Defence Weekly magazine stated.
Jane’s reported that the initial dispatching of 2,600 military medical personnel to the epicenter of the outbreak was the “exception rather than the rule.” A NATO intelligence officer told Jane’s that Chinese Communist Party officials probably wanted to keep soldiers healthy in the event they were needed to quell public outcry at a later date. (Pictured: A man wearing a mask stands on the terrace of a building in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The reluctance to deploy PLA units is “first and foremost about force protection,” the officer said. Units have to be kept as free of the virus as possible to maintain effective operational status should they be needed at a later date, military and intelligence officials told Jane’s.
Peter Singer, a U.S. defense expert, called the PLA’s tepid response surprising.
“The first group of PLA medical units began to arrive in Wuhan only on January 24, nearly a month after the virus began to spread,” he wrote for the Defense One website. “They arrived in relatively small numbers: three medical teams were reported to have been sent from Shanghai, Chongqing and Xi’an, totaling 450 personnel. The subsequent lack of any major following deployment was striking, especially as needs ranged from supply to construction, such that regime officials even turned to making false claims of building hospitals in record time.”
He added that Wuhan is home to several major military units, including a key logistics base, which makes the PLA’s sparse presence on the front lines of the outbreak even more puzzling.
One potential reason for the lack of a large-scale deployment is that the PLA wants to obscure major disruptions in its military supply chain and industrial sectors, according to the experts interviewed by Jane’s. About 160 million workers in China were expected to return to work between February 10 and February 18 after the Lunar New Year. Prior to the spread of the virus, they were expected to return on February 3.
The impact on the economy and supply chains is severe. Even though government data are incomplete, the numbers available show a struggling Chinese economy. Steel transactions are down 59%, while coal consumption has fallen 37%. Both numbers indicate fall-offs in production.
That industrial shutdown has left many orders unfilled overseas. Brandon Toothill, vice president of the Vancouver, Canada, firm C&D Logistics, told the Financial Post magazine that his company’s volume of container shipments coming into port from China has fallen 85%.
“It really was a complete shutdown in China,” Toothill said. “There were no containers being picked up and there was no production. Things have started to look a little better now, but it’ll still take a month to get back to normal, and that’s if things improve on the coronavirus front.”