Coronavirus News Asia

China could prey on Covid-19 weakened Pentagon

MANILA – As the Covid-19 pandemic ravages America, the Pentagon’s sudden vulnerability to the lethal disease has grounded vessels and provided China a potential historic opening in the Indo-Pacific, one that could result in a seismic shift in the region’s maritime balance of power.    

Washington has in recent days announced an upsurge in infection rates among military personnel deployed at various overseas US missions. The US Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command, which covers vast areas of Asia including the hotly contested South China Sea, has been particularly hard hit, according to reports.

At the same time a deteriorating public health emergency at home, with President Donald Trump warning this week of as many as 240,000 Covid-19 related deaths, has required the Pentagon to divert personnel and resources to domestic containment operations, potentially to the detriment of overseas commitments and power projection.

The Defense Production Act’s recent activation means that US armed forces are now involved in provision of desperately needed medical equipment and kits, including ventilators and body bags, as overstretched US hospitals grapple with a steep rise in cases and deaths.

Covid-19’s rapid transmission among American military personnel, meanwhile, has raised hard new questions about the Pentagon’s readiness, including in regard to joint exercises and activities with allies and partners in Asia that tacitly aim to check and warn China through show of force.

In late March, the total number of infections among the Pentagon’s personnel breached 1,000, including 633 service members. It marked a dramatic increase from a much lower number of 343 cases reported only days earlier.

Soldiers stationed on US Army Garrison Casey conduct pre-screening processes at Dongducheon, South Korea. Photo: Twitter/Amber I. Smith/US Army

The rapid rise in infections forced US Defense Secretary Mark Esper on March 27 to place restrictions on further public announcements regarding the precise number of infected US military personnel, due to concerns such transparency could compromise operational security and be exploited by strategic adversaries, namely China, Russia and Iran.

“Unit level readiness data for key military forces is information that is classified as a risk to operational security and could jeopardize operations and/or deterrence,” said Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, on March 30.

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