The Corona virus dominates the news, but its strategic implications have not been mentioned much. This matches a general trend where news outlets offer breathless coverage of Chinese missiles or scary commentary on their aggression in the South China Sea, but they fail to recognize the bigger picture. In the case of military articles that would include important observations like the fact that every missile, ship, or weapon system is manned by soldiers drawn from society at large. When society is sick and panicking, big problems happen. The Chinese government’s response to the Corona virus has displayed a multitude of problems that suggest they are not ready for dealing with an epidemic — much less a major war.
Coronavirus Has Exposed China’s Structural Weakness
The virus has exposed more specific issues beyond their looming demographic challenges and real estate bubble. The inability of senior officials to heed the warnings of professionals when the virus was first discovered helped it spread. Not only did government officials ignore them, but like medieval inquisitors, police and then Communist party officials made those doctors recant and admit to “spreading rumors.” As a result, doctors and health officials on the front lines didn’t take sufficient precautionary measures during the early critical period when only a few were infected but still contagious. Nor were health officials able to warn the people of Wuhan to take similar measures.
Certainly, the Chinese were good at top down central planning. For example, they quarantined the entire city of Wuhan, Hubei province, and built several new hospitals in about six days each. But that reveals an authoritarian use of slave labor, not efficiency. Moreover, the military actually has hospital ships and trained units that are supposed to help in humanitarian efforts, but they have been noticeably absent from the effort.
In the Case of War China Would Be Crippled By Centralized Planning and Repressive Conformity
Both the inability to listen to front line individuals with the most intimate knowledge of problems, and the fondness for top down, centralized planning would hurt China in a potential conflict. Warfare is incredibly chaotic and intelligence from the front lines is paramount. Punishing whistleblowers or those that tell the truth would have devastating consequences in battle. For example, during the early days of the German invasion of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin was far away in Moscow but still tried to direct the war effort. Many nonexistent units that had collapsed were given orders to counterattack from locations that had been captured days earlier. Commanders knew the orders were inaccurate, but they were too scared to tell Stalin the truth and passed them on. The few units that weren’t shattered and in pell-mell retreat had no useful directions which only made the collapse even worse. The Chinese handling of the Corona virus sent a loud message to junior officers and NCOs that honest opinions are not welcome if opinions could damage the party and even in peace time the Chinese people have died because of it.
“No Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy”
In warfare the famous saying that “no plan survives contact with the enemy” and also indicates that the insights and initiative of people at the bottom are often more important than top down directives. The key moment of the Battle of Midway for example was when bomber pilots low on fuel decided to hunt for the nearby Japanese carrier instead of returning to refuel. The Chinese fighter pilots, in contrast, are said to train in rather rote and basic scenarios and lack tactical initiative. When combat comes, they would be pounced upon by well-trained American pilots who possess the full confidence of their leaders. Chinese NCOs, paralyzed by fear of making a mistake and being punished by central authorities would be outflanked, out-maneuvered, and out fought, by spirited, free, and unleashed small unit commanders on the other side. In China’s case, trying to use their advanced missiles – the subject of many breathless reports we hear – would be a an under-trained, likely overweight soldier, more afraid of displeasing his superiors than fighting the enemy.
Warfare is messy, chaotic, and costly. The Chinese have shown some of the advantages of an authoritarian regime such as commanding large amounts of material and labor to build a hospital in a short time. But they have shown many more reasons why they will lose in any potential large-scale conflict.
For all the reasons China has had trouble handling this virus, they couldn’t effectively fight or win a long war. Their soldiers, seaman, and airmen would be unable to cope with the furious demands of an ever-changing battlefield. They would be frozen with fear that they would displease their communist overlords and as a result pass off incoherent orders or not provide accurate intelligence. As I just wrote, China still might risk a short quick war to seize disputed territory or send a message. But the risk of a short war turning into a long one could dissuade them.