Chinese military puts joint drills on hold to fight coronavirus

Minnie Chan Minnie Chan, South China Morning Post

Posted at Mar 03 2020 09:32 AM

Chinese military puts joint drills on hold to fight coronavirus 1
Medical personnel arrive in transport aircraft of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force at the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. China Daily via Reuters

The world's biggest military has been forced to suspend all large-scale joint drills, with the coronavirus epidemic disrupting transport and allocations of military resources around the country.

To help contain the epidemic, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) sent more than 10,000 medical personnel to the central Chinese city of Wuhan and other hard-hit areas in Hubei province, according to Chen Jingyuan, head of the Logistic Support Department's medical bureau under the Central Military Commission (CMC).

This mission also involved the deployment of various transport aircraft, including the Y-20, the biggest in the air force's fleet, from various theater commands.

The defense ministry said the military was now focused on the battle against the epidemic, forcing the PLA to suspend some of its "large-scale drills and training plans."

Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said disruptions in logistics were at the core of the training plan changes.

"The ongoing war against the epidemic has affected the PLA's regular drill plans because many of the PLA's combat units, such as air force aircraft and military vehicles, have been mobilized to support Wuhan," Song said.

"Troops in different theater commands were also needed to help local hospitals and governments cope with the widespread epidemic."

However, Song and other military observers said the suspensions would only apply to drills involving joint naval, air force and cross-border training and various theater commands. Regular combat-readiness operations such as air and naval patrols in the East and South China seas would remain unchanged.

"Drills involving a single branch of the armed forces ... including the 'island encirclement near Taiwan' to warn Taiwanese independence-leaning forces ... will continue because border areas should always remain on high combat alert even when Beijing is busy (dealing) with domestic crises," Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said.

The coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 people in mainland China, killing nearly 3,000. More than 80 per cent of the total confirmed cases have been in Hubei province, a hub for railways and highways connecting the Southern and Eastern theater commands to the PLA's Zhurihe Combined Tactics Training Base in Inner Mongolia.

"The CMC was forced to make the decision (to suspend the joint drills) just because of the lockdown in Wuhan," a military insider said.

Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, is home to the headquarters of the PLA's Joint Logistic Support Force, which coordinates joint drills. However, the city has been in lockdown since early January.

"The high infection rate in Wuhan indicates that the epidemic in the city has not yet contained. It's too risky to let the troops pass through the city to their way to Zhurihe for training," the insider said.

"All troops in the Central Theater Command have been exhausted to support Wuhan."

The PLA holds annual joint drills in Zhurihe, bringing together all branches of the 5 theater commands' ground, air, rocket and strategic support forces.

The drills are integral to sweeping military reforms meant to transform the PLA into a modern, streamlined fighting force.

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