How coronavirus is stalling China’s military modernisation plans | Opinion
The epidemic has hit the PLA’s recruitment drive, and stalled production at weapons manufacturing institutesUpdated: Feb 19, 2020, 06:44 IST
The coronavirus epidemic erupted when the slowdown of the Chinese economy had already accelerated because of the trade war with the United States. China’s economy has now been further adversely affected, with economists assessing that the growth rate will need to be revised downward to 5%. The country’s services sector is estimated to be losing $114 billion a week. At least 22 Chinese provinces and regions, including Beijing, Guangdong, Zhejiang, Henan, Hainan and Fujian, have already set lower growth targets this year compared to the last.
This combined stress on China’s economy is poised to dilute the strategic geo-economic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a prestige project of the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Investment in BRI has already dipped. This will dent, if not damage, the credibility of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President Xi who promised to realise the “China Dream” by 2021.
The adverse impact of the coronavirus epidemic on China’s military modernisation became visible earlier this month. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) announced, on February 7, that it was suspending its military recruitment programme for the current year.
The new recruitment programme, announced by the PLA in January and scheduled to begin this year, would have had two recruitment cycles. The first phase was to commence in mid-February and continue till the end of March, with the second recruitment cycle running from mid-August to the end of September.
The new programme also provided that military personnel will retire twice a year. This revised programme was described as being “of great significance for recruiting more high-quality soldiers”. China’s ministry of national defence said it “is of great significance for improving the quality and training of enlistees and enhancing the military’s combat capability”. While Li Daguang, professor at the PLA National Defense University in Beijing, said the postponement “should not have much effect on the number or quality of the eventual recruits”, the decision to suspend recruitment will undoubtedly upset long-term plans and training programmes. It will additionally defer employment, especially for the rural youth, at a time when unemployment has been rising steadily for the last two years.
Equally impactful is the decision of certain vital military centres to slow down production. Early this month, the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai, which is building China’s third aircraft carrier, asked employees, who travelled to other cities since the virus outbreak, not to return to work until further notice, or quarantine themselves at home for the stipulated period. This will delay the construction of the new aircraft carrier and could have further knock-on effects.
The impact of the virus in Wuhan, where it originated, will affect China’s defence production. Wuhan is home to many Chinese weapons and equipment design and manufacturing institutes, such as the Wuchang Shipbuilding Industry Group, which builds submarines, and the Naval University of Engineering, which is developing advanced naval technologies such as the electromagnetic catapult, rail gun, full electric propulsion, and submarine-related technologies. The research and development headquarters of most Chinese hi-technology companies are also located in Wuhan.
China’s production of carrier-based aircraft has also been adversely impacted, with the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation in Liaoning Province deciding to suspend production. Like other enterprises, it has informed its workers who travelled to other cities not to return till further notice, or quarantine themselves at home for the required period. The Shenyang Aircraft Corporation manufactures the J-15 carrier-based fighter jet, which is presently the only jet fighter available to the PLA Navy (PLAN)’s carrier fleet and its mainstay. There is currently a shortfall in the number of J-15 fighter jets available to the PLAN, which wants 36 aircraft on each aircraft carrier, but can provide a maximum of only 24 aircraft. There is also a severe shortage of navy aviation pilots and efforts have been underway to train more pilots and accelerate production of the J-15 aircraft.
The PLAN, which receives the highest share of China’s military budget, is tasked to protect China’s maritime and overseas interests. Closure of these weapons manufacturing institutes, even though temporary, will delay the PLAN’s ambition of becoming an ocean-going fleet and hamper its envisaged role in the Maritime Silk Route (MSR), considered an important part of the BRI.
The severe economic losses that are estimated and visibly growing discontent in society could compel China’s leadership to invest in promoting employment and the domestic economy rather than the military. There could be reduced interest in spending on overseas ports viewed as part of the MSR. This is likely to revive the debate going on for the past almost 4 months about the number of aircraft carriers that China needs. The slowdown in military build-up will delay the realisation of the “China Dream”.