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The Liaoning aircraft carrier strike group has resumed activities after being interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Handout

PLA flexes military muscle near Taiwan ‘in show of Covid-19 control’ to virus-hit US

  • People’s Liberation Army resumes drills, including flotilla exercise in Miyako Strait
  • Military observers say China is demonstrating its ability while virus hampers US aircraft carriers
The People’s Liberation Army has resumed regular military drills at home and overseas, moves that military experts say are a show of strength and control over the Covid-19 outbreak.

The ground forces, navy and air force of the PLA’s five theatre commands started military drills this month, with some exercises involving joint operations, according to several reports published by the PLA Daily in recent days.

As the epidemic surged in China, the PLA was forced to suspend all large-scale joint drills because of disruptions to transport and allocations of military resources around the country.

On Saturday, one of the large-scale drills resumed. A six-ship flotilla, led by the Liaoning aircraft carrier, sailed through the Miyako Strait – just 330km (205 miles) due east of the northernmost tip of Taiwan – on its way to the western Pacific.
China’s People Liberation Army conducts drills. Photo: Handout

“In the future, the Chinese navy will continue to organise similar training schedules to accelerate and improve the combat capability of its aircraft carrier strike groups,” navy spokesman Gao Xiucheng was quoted as saying in PLA Daily.

It is the first time the Liaoning has reappeared in waters near Taiwan since sailors on four United States aircraft carriers sent to the Indo-Pacific region were infected by the coronavirus, making the Chinese carrier the only vessel of its kind active in the western Pacific.

The reappearance of the Liaoning strike group prompted Taiwan to send warships, while the US sent a P-3C Orion anti-submarine aircraft to follow the Chinese flotilla. Taiwanese media reported that the aircraft was the seventh American warplane sent to the region in a week.

Hong Kong-based military analyst Song Zhongping said the Liaoning’s appearance near Taiwan was not only a demonstration of military deterrence to the independence-leaning ruling party in Taiwan, but also a gesture to show off the PLA’s greater ability to contain the coronavirus pandemic than its American counterpart.

“Compared with the PLA, the United States military is weaker and lacks experience in dealing with non-traditional military operations such as battles against epidemics, because those aspects are mostly carried by the US National Guard in various states,” Song said.

“Since the threat of Covid-19 is decreasing, the PLA needs to return to their regular training to prepare for a war to reunify Taiwan by force when necessary. The possible war is very complicated as it [would] involve dealing with foreign militaries, such as US and Japanese navies.”

Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said that the PLA so far had been able to control the infection sources and channels among soldiers and officers, but that the threat of Covid-19 remained.

In pictures published by the PLA Daily, PLA officers do not wear masks while conducting drills.

Both Zhou and Song said that the Covid-19 pandemic had hit the US Navy and left a power vacuum in the region but that the PLA would not use the chance to attack Taiwan.

“Using force to take Taiwan back is still the last step, not the first priority,” Zhou said. “How to manage and maintain Taiwan’s prosperity is the most important issue of the cross-strait relationship.”

Song said the PLA still believed the US Navy had maintained a degree of combat capability even though hundreds of US sailors were infected by the novel coronavirus.

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