At a time when China was looking to cushion the blow to its economy due to the ongoing trade war with the USA, the Coronavirus has struck the nation at the worst possible time which will have devastating impact on the country’s economy. Due to the virus, the country’s services sector is estimated to be losing $114 billion a week. The virus has now brought China’s defence sector to a complete standstill which will derail Chinese Premier Xi Jinping’s to realise his “China Dream” by 2021.
Economists across the world have claimed that China’s growth rate will have to be revised downward to 5% which will have a spillover effect on China’s defence sector. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), earlier this month, announced that it was suspending its military recruitment programme for the current year. 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.
What’s worse for China is the fact that the epicentre of Coronavirus, Wuhan is also the hub of many Chinese weapons and equipment design and manufacturing institutes. Additionally, the research and development headquarters of most Chinese hi-technology companies are also located in Wuhan. The complete lockdown of Wuhan is likely to severely affect China’s defence production. Earlier this month, the Jiangnan Shipyard which is located in Shanghai and 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 obviously delay the construction of the new aircraft carrier and could have further knock-on effects.
On the other hand, Shenyang Aircraft Corporation in Liaoning Province has completely suspended its production. There is currently a shortfall in the number of J-15 fighter jets available to the Chinese Navy, 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.
Despite the increasing threat of Coronavirus, and seeking help from other countries, China is resorting to bizarre measures. The province of Hubei, where the impact of the virus is the most severe, has switched off lifts in high-rise buildings to discourage residents from going outside while Beijing has banned group dining for events such as birthdays and weddings while cities such as Hangzhou and Nanchang are limiting how many family members can leave home each day. Despite the full-blown epidemic, the Chinese leaders are more worried about the optics and are working overtime to muzzle every dissenting voice. Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a nonprofit organization with extensive contacts in China, has already tracked more than 300 cases of internet users who were penalized for sharing unofficial information on social media.
China’s inability to tackle the novel Coronavirus is likely to have further knock on effects and severely hamper its military’s modernisation plans.