Hugh Harsono is currently serving as an Officer in the United States Army. He writes regularly for multiple publications about cyberspace, economics, foreign affairs, and technology. He can be found on LinkedIn @HughHarsono. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization or any group.
Title: Assessing China’s Civil and Military Crisis Response Capabilities
Date Originally Written: March 17, 2020.
Date Originally Published: June 8, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author believes that observing China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic can inform national security researchers and practitioners as to how China may respond to other crises.
Summary: COVID-19 has highlighted China’s strengths in terms of rapid quarantine implementation and mobilizing national-level resources quickly. It has also highlighted failures in China’s bureaucratic nature and failing public health systems and breakdowns on the military front. COVID-19 has enabled outsiders a rare look to both analyze and assess the China’s current capabilities for crisis response.
Text: COVID-19 has engulfed not only the entirety of People’s Republic of China (PRC) but also the world. From quarantining entire regions in China to mobilizing national-level assets, the PRC has been forced to demonstrate its crisis response abilities in addressing the COVID-19 epidemic. Crisis response is a particularly vital capability for the PRC to possess in order to truly legitimize its standing on the global stage, with these abilities allowing China to project power internally and externally. The reactionary nature of the PRC’s response to COVID-19 can be analyzed to showcase its current capabilities when applied to a variety of other scenarios, from insurgent threats to bioweapon attacks.
The PRC has responded to COVID-19 in two distinct ways that can be applauded, with these specific crisis response initiatives being drastic quarantine measures and the mobilization of national-level assets. The large-scale quarantine ordered in the Hubei province by Beijing in January 2020 demonstrated a specific capability to employ scalable options in terms of reducing the number of COVID-19 cases from this region, with other areas in China also following suit. The Hubei quarantine was no small feat, given Wuhan’s status as the capital of the Hubei province with some estimates placing the number of affected individuals to approximately 35 million people. Furthermore, the PRC’s mobilization of national-level assets demonstrates a consolidated ability to action resources, potentially in an expeditionary capability. Aside from the cancellation of major Lunar New Year events throughout the country and the mass recall of manufacturing workers to produce face masks, PRC authorities also deployed resources to build multiple hospitals in a time of less than several weeks, to include the 1,000 bed Huoshenshan hospital and the 1,600 bed Leishenshan hospital with 1,600 beds. These actions demonstrated the PRC’s crisis response strengths in attempting to contain COVID-19. China’s stringent mass-quarantine measures and mobilization of national-level resources showcased the PRCs ability to exercise its authority in an attempt to reduce the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
While the PRC has proven itself effective on some levels, COVID-19 has also exposed weaknesses in the PRC’s crisis response apparatus in both civilian and military infrastructure systems. From a civil perspective, the PRC’s multi-tiered bureaucratic nature has showcased itself as a point of failure during the PRC’s initial response to COVID-19. With a top-down approach emphasizing strict obedience to superiors and centralized PRC leadership, local-level officials hesitated in relaying the dire nature of COVID-19 to their superiors, going so far as to continue local Lunar New Year Events, shut out experts, and even silence whistleblowers. The PRC’s already over-burdened health system did not fare much better, with Chinese hospitals quickly exhausting available supplies, personnel, and hospital beds in the initial weeks of the declared coronavirus outbreak.
Chinese military response efforts also experienced similar breakdowns in purported capabilities. The PRC’s Joint Logistic Support Force (JLSF), a Wuhan-headquartered force purported to comprise of “multiple units, ammunition depots, warehouses, fuel depots, hospitals, and underground facilities spread over a wide geographic area,” has seen relatively little activation in support of the PRC’s crisis response efforts thus far. The JLSF has mobilized less than 2,000 personnel in support of COVID-19 response efforts as of the writing of this article, playing a role more in-line with situation monitoring and self-protection. Additionally, military logistics were further highlighted by a significant shortage in the amount of available nucleic acid testing kits, highlighting issues between both JLSF and People’s Liberation Army enterprise-at-large. Therefore, it is only possible for one to conclude that the PRC’s military crisis response capabilities may not be as developed as otherwise advertised.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 will be a defining medical pandemic with global impact. Testing the PRC at a real-time level, COVID-19 has highlighted Beijing’s strengths in terms of rapid quarantine implementation and the ability to mobilize national-level resources quickly. On the other hand, China’s ineffectiveness in terms of crisis response has also been showcased, with failures emerging from the PRC’s bureaucratic nature and failing public health systems combined with breakdowns on the PRC’s military front. As devastating as its effects continue to be, the coronavirus provides immense value into understanding the PRC’s capabilities for crisis response.
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