The COVID-19 pandemic has blunted but not stopped Chinese military modernisation. Defence spending increases may be less but military procurement and R&D (particularly in the realm of artificial intelligence) are proceeding unabated. China is still on track to becoming a world-class military power by 2049.
The COVID-19 virus has up-ended many things. When it comes to Chinese military modernisation, however, the pandemic has blunted the pace of expansion but hardly stopped it. Overall, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is still on track towards meeting its twin goals of achieving “complete military modernisation” by 2035, and becoming a “world-class” military by 2049.
In the first place, the COVID-19 pandemic has not really affected Chinese military expenditures. Beijing announced in May that spending on national defence in 2020 would rise to 1.268 trillion yuan, or US$186 billion, an increase of 6.6 per cent over 2019. This was the lowest annual increase in more than 20 years.
Chinese defence spending outstrips all other Asian and all European militaries, including Russia; China has become the second-largest defence spender in the world. If the PLA (as it has asserted in its defence white papers) spends one-third of its budget on equipment and R&D, then it has over $60 billion to spend on procurement – and it shows.
Secondly, the COVID-19 pandemic has not appreciably slowed the modernisation of the PLA. By implementing early on a quarantine of Wuhan (the origin and centre of the COVID-19 outbreak) Beijing was able to shield much of the rest of the company from the virus’ ill effects. As such, most of China’s defence industrial base – which is spread out among the country – has been spared from any great disruptions.
One sector of the Chinese defence industry that we know was adversely affected is its diesel-electric submarine (SSK) industry, since Wuhan is the centre for the manufacture of such subs. Current-model Yuan-class (Type-039A) and Song-class (Type-039) SSKs are both constructed at Wuchang Shipbuilding in Wuhan, for the PLA Navy (PLAN) and for export.
Apparently, the Wuhan shipyards were temporarily closed down during the initial COVID-19 outbreak. However, according to Chinese news reports, these yards soon resumed construction of new submarines and began making up for “lost time”.
The rest of China’s defence industry appears to have been untouched, and the recapitalisation and modernisation of the PLA has proceeded unabated.
At the same time, China has not abandoned its militarisation of the South China Sea, its efforts to expand into the Indian Ocean ─ including the establishment of its first overseas military base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa ─ or its ambitious Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI). This process has been strengthened by its continuing investments in cutting-edge technologies, particularly AI.
According to the US Defence Department, China is making progress in AI-enabled unmanned surface vessels which the PLAN plans to use to patrol the South China Sea, as well as unmanned ground systems and swarming technologies.
China’s drive to become a major global power is unabated, and the COVID-19 pandemic is hardly going to make a dent in that campaign.
Article by Richard A. Bitzinger at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)
Edited by Shantanu K. Bansal