What will be the impact of the coronavirus epidemic on China's military? While some experts say the pandemic will stymie Xi Jinping's efforts to modernise the mammoth Chinese military, others say that China will not let the economic crisis clutter its 'power trajectory.'
From artificial intelligence to anti-ship ballistic missiles and from aircraft carriers to stealth fighters, China's military has been on a modernisation overdrive. The United States has been the undisputed military power ever since the end of the Cold War. However, China has been trying to close the gap in recent years, after having made significant advances in various departments of warfare. Alongside a powerful economy, one of the pillars of Xi's vision for China is its military might.
However, some experts believe that the coronavirus epidemic might halt the PLA march on its tracks. According to the latest reports, the virus outbreak has significantly slowed President Xi Jinping's drive to modernise the People's Liberation Army. Xi launched the massive and expensive modernisation of the PLA in a plenary session for Military Reform in November 2015.
The first casualty of the pandemic was wide-scale recruitment to the army and navy, says a report in the South China Morning Post. The army was supposed to launch a recruitment drive in the spring but it has been rescheduled to. In the meantime, the PLA Navy has also been forced to defer hiring and training.
"The PLA is still a conscription army and, given its large turnover of soldiers every year and the late recruitment and training plan this year, the coronavirus pandemic has already affected combat effectiveness," Adam Ni, director of the China Policy Centre based in Canberra, Australia, told the SCMP.
Though China has the world's largest armed force with 2.3 million active men on duty, its personnel were not affected by the coronavirus. At the same time, militaries of other large powers like the US, Russia and India have reported infections in their ranks. One of the factors that sets China apart from the US is that its military is largely home-bound, while the US forces are distributed across the world.
There have also been conflicting reports over the impact of coronavirus on Chinese military. A report last week said China's military budget will not shrink this year despite the economic impact of the coronavirus. A China expert in Washington told SCMP last week that the Chinese defence budget might stay largely unaffected by the virus turmoil.
"In the current environment, Beijing is keen to emphasise that China has recovered substantially from Covid-19 and that its power trajectory is unaffected by recent events ... At the same time, it would be aware of the anger towards the Communist Party for allowing the virus to become a pandemic," John Lee, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, said.
Impacted by the coronavirus, China's GDP dropped 6.8 percent in the first three months of 2020. The government will have to spare vast chunks of the resources for emergency healthcare, poverty mitigation and employment generation.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China spent US$261 billion for the military, roughly 2 percent of the GDP, in 2019. However, the official records say the military allocation was only 1.18 trillion yuan (US$176 billion). But notably, this amount was 7.5 percent higher than the allocation for the previous year. It remains to be seen if China would increase the military spending, stay the course or cut down drastically.
SCMP says that China could unveil the 2020 military allocation later this month. The National People's Congress, which is China's apex legislative body, is expected to start the budget session on May 22.