The PLA’s anemic participation is odd given its past performance, planning, and pronouncements.
As the 2019 novel coronavirus spread into a full-fledged epidemic, China’s government took an extraordinary series of responses, effectively quarantining some 50 million people in the Wuhan area. But even as the government (somewhat belatedly) sprung into action, its limited mobilization of Chinese military assets and personnel has been notable — both because militaries traditionally play significant roles in battling pandemics and Beijing has in recent years been at pains to trumpet its burgeoning military capability.
At a moment when hospitals across China are posting cries for supplies on social media, the anemic response by the People’s Liberation Army calls into question some of its most lauded capabilities: powerful logistics and mass military-civil contingency response mobilization.
Because pandemics stretch normal civilian capacity and require rapid response at scale, governments often mobilize military units to help with everything from health and food services to security and construction. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa, the U.S. military sent more than 4,000 troops, led by the 101st Airborne headquarters, who helped global and local health organizations with aid delivery, logistics, transportation and also built 17 hospitals each with 100 beds. Today, the U.S. military has already announced plans to provide quarantine housing for as many as 1,000 people coming from areas where there has been a coronavirus outbreak.
Yet the first group of PLA medical units began to arrive in Wuhan only on Jan. 24, nearly a month after the virus began to spread. 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.
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The PLA’s relative lack of response is even more puzzling given that Wuhan is home to major military units that should be capable of deploying to a contingency. These include the Joint Logistics Support Base [联合保障中心], notionally the center of the PLA Logistic Support Force’s network of warehouses and stockpiles). According to China's 2019 defense white paper, the PLA Joint Logistic Support Force "comprises the support forces for inventory and warehousing, medical services, transport, force projection, oil pipelines, engineering and construction management, reserve assets management, and procurement."
The timing was also noteworthy. Despite the base in Wuhan, and theoretically at least, a streamlined ability to flow units into and out of the province, the PLA Logistics Support Force only established a “response and coordination mechanism” on Jan. 26th, almost a month after the virus began to spread and 15 days after it was officially acknowledged. Even then, official reporting on this “mechanism” describes it as offering communications and funding capabilities, rather than distributing stockpiles, delivering aid, or mobilization of hospitals under its management.
In the week that followed, OSINT found that the military role picked up, but remained limited:
- Feb. 2: PLA units stationed in Hubei begin providing logistical support in Wuhan, transporting daily essentials to several civilian logistical hubs throughout the city.
- Feb. 4: The PLA medical team takes over daily operations at the Huoshengshan Hospital and starts taking in and treating patients.
- Feb. 4: PLA Daily reports that the Joint Logistical Support Force is seeking ways to broaden its medical supply purchasing channels.
- Feb. 4: A total of 19 military transport vehicles and 60 troops arrive to transport supplies to the "cabin hospital" that had been set up in a sports stadium in Wuhan’s Wuchang district.
The other military services also appear to be largely absent. In recent years, China has produced significant numbers of strategic Y-20 transport aircraft, bragging about the leap forward they offer to China’s ability to deploy at home and abroad, yet these have so far been notably absent from relief efforts. So too, the PLA has also signed strategic agreements with China’s largest transport and delivery services to allow them rapid access in a crisis. For example, the PLA's largest-ever logistics exercise, held in December 2018, featured mass use of these companies' planes and trucks. So far, none of these agreements appear to be in effect as part of the coronavirus response.
Cities’ emergency response systems are also being tested. Across China, many cities hold annual large-scale civil defense and other crisis response exercises. Chongqing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, for example, each held exercises simulating air attack or crisis response in 2019 involving mobilization of police, militia and civilian organizations—often in coordination with the PLA. While touted as an example of China’s ability to move rapidly as a whole to a war or crisis response footing, so far they have been inactive in a real crisis.
More alarming is the fact that the Hubei Provincial Health Committee simulated the breakout of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in April in preparation for the 2019 World Military Games in Wuhan. The city should have had contingency plans ready, or at the very least been better situated to respond. But it seems clear that Wuhan city officials and the Hubei provincial government were not able to coordinate a contingency response with PLA or other units, indicating a breakdown of communications channels or that the mechanisms in place were ineffective.
Ironically, while the Chinese military has been behind in its mobilization, the private sector has stepped in to fill the void. In the face of medical supply and health services gaps, there are numerous examples circulating of individuals donating relief supplies or helping those in need. E-commerce giant Alibaba established a 1 billion RMB ($144 million USD) special fund to directly purchase medical supplies from home and abroad and send them to hospitals in Wuhan and Hubei on a regular basis. It also created detailed plans for mobilizing domestic production capacity and coordinating production and procurement of medical supplies, while also provided hundreds of meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at two hospitals in Wuhan, free of charge.