Since mid-January, the public and media around the world have focused their attention on the new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan. As the virus spread from China to elsewhere in the world, panicked people began buying personal protective equipment while major cities in China started to take measures to contain the spread of the virus. Some cities, largely in Hubei province, have even been locked down entirely under tight quarantine. International flights in and out of China were suspended and China’s economy was greatly affected as a result. All this shows the damage the coronavirus epidemic has caused.
There have been many reports analyzed the coronavirus outbreak from angles ranging from public health and medical management to more general crisis management. This article will look at the role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the fight against the new coronavirus to evaluate the impact of recent military reforms. In doing so, we can see certain potential problems with the PLA.
Governments habitually emphasize that military training exercises are as significant as real engagements, with the participating units maneuvering against each other. Authorities may claim that their exercises are realistic and that they are not meant to be playacted out according to scripts. However, military exercises and actual combat are still quite different. A training exercise can never replicated the confusion and severe conflict seen in a war. In times of peace, one of the best ways for the outside world to evaluate the strength of a given military is to observe its exercises. But in fact, a military will reveal more of its real capabilities — and problems — during disaster relief missions, especially with respect to troop mobilization and assembly and logistics support.
The disaster relief mechanism formed between the PLA and governments of all levels in China has become increasingly sound after relief operations in a string of natural disaster in recent years. An emergency response mechanism came into existence for such situations, preventing problems in the execution of command power. However, following the most recent round of military reform initiated at the end of 2015, the former military regions have disappeared. There have also been considerable changes to the overall command structure of the PLA. The designations of group armies have been changed extensively as well. Under the circumstances, can the original relationship and interaction between the military and local governments catch up with post-reform conditions? We have yet to find out.
Moreover, the ongoing fight against new coronavirus requires military medical personnel and specialized chemical troops, rather than a large concentration of soldiers for manual labor or field communication equipment for to restore communications, both of which are more typical requirements in relief operations. That is where this fight against a viral outbreak is different from the nontraditional security missions the PLA was previously involved in.
The change in the command system governing military hospitals has had a particular impact on the PLA’s role in the fight against the coronavirus. The military reforms launched since the end of 2015 totally restructured the PLA. The command structure of the PLA and systems governing operations, equipment, organization, and training have been considerably changed. Military hospitals are no exception.
They used to be managed by the now-defunct General Logistics Department (GLD), one of the former four General Departments that virtually controlled the military. The director of the GLD was a member of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Due to the complicated relationship between the military and local governments, the corruption-plagued provision of paid services, and the oftentimes-too-close cooperation between the military and civilians in logistics affairs, the GLD, which was paralyzed with all these problems, became a hotbed of corruption. Following the military reform, the GLD was renamed the Logistic Support Department (LSD) and downgraded, as seen in the exclusion of its director from the CMC membership.
Furthermore, the PLA established the Joint Logistic Support Force (JLSF), the commander of which is on the grade of deputy commander of a theater command, in September 2016. It is a new service on an equal footing with the Army, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, and Strategic Support Force. Its establishment has caused the logistics system of the PLA to be totally reorganized. Although the LSD still can make suggestions to the military medical system, the management of military hospitals is still in the hands of the JLSF.
Notably, the PLA General Hospital (better known as the 301 Hospital), the most important element of the PLA medical system, was also restructured in the wake of the military reform. It was merged with other military hospitals to form eight medical centers. In the same way as the designations of group armies were changed, military hospitals were also reorganized and renamed. Of course, the reorganization had something to do with the reshuffling of power relations in the military medical system. Just as group armies were generally reorganized, so the links between the military and local governments were changed. Likewise, military hospitals were subjected to extensive restructuring.
On top of that, given that the JLSF is headquartered in Wuhan – coincidentally, the epicenter of the current coronavirus outbreak. Theoretically, the JLSF can command the PLA General Hospital in Beijing, the director of which is on the grade of corps commander, and thus ranked below the JLSF commander. Although the hospital in Beijing is a lower-grade unit, however, whether the Wuhan-based JLSF can give orders to it is really in doubt since the hospital takes care of the health of many leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and the central government.
How the post-reform medical system of the PLA can effectively integrate resources and function efficiently may be an issue that the PLA needs to think about after discovering its insufficiencies in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak.
For the PLA, the first priority is still to be able to fight. After the launch of the military reforms, the PLA has been making tune-ups through training exercises while optimizing the command and control system from the CMC to the theater commands all the way down to grassroots units. However, joint operations still need the backup of logistics troops. How to distinguish between the post-reform LSD and the JLSF in terms of assigned duties? Studies on military logistics and medical subjects may not receive as much attention as those on combat technique, combat vehicles, and military equipment, but they greatly affect a military’s operations capabilities. It is an issue worthy of our continued attention.
Dr. Ying Yu Lin is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Strategic and International Affairs, National Chung Cheng University in Chiayi, Taiwan and a Research Fellow, Association of Strategic Foresight. He received his Ph.D from the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies, Tamkang University.