China-South Africa military co-operation on communicable diseases prevention


With the recent announcement that new Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19 or Coronavirus) infections outside China outpaces those in the country, the necessity for the armed forces to support preventing the infectious disease spreading is paramount.

It is common for armed forces to be involved role in disaster relief operations. In the case of China, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) mobilised more than 4 000 uniformed medical personnel from all over the country to Wuhan city where they have taken over three hospitals designated for confirmed infected patients with serious symptoms.

Many of these military medics are experienced doctors and nurses who participated in anti-Ebola operations in Africa several years ago.

The Chinese PLA wants to enhance communications with the SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) and Logistic Division in areas such as communicable diseases control, emergency logistic support and military facilities construction. Both the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and PLA have peacekeeping troops in DRC where they can co-operate in Ebola prevention.

China said combining traditional and modern medicine to treat COVID-19 patients “may give some inspiration to development of African traditional medicines in the modern scientific way.”

A Chinese Embassy staff member told defenceWeb the SANDF, as one of the leading armed forces in Africa, has much experience to share with its Chinese counterparts.

In November 2019, the Joint Logistic Support Force of the Chinese PLA, which oversees both military logistic support and military health systems, sent a senior delegation to South Africa. This year, bilateral military logistic and health co-operation will be strengthened as a result of the co-operation consensus reached by both sides.

“Contagious diseases are an international health emergency issue facing mankind and can only be resolved by joint efforts from civilian and military resources of the international community,” the staff member explained, “the Chinese PLA and the SANDF would expect more in joint research, training, information sharing, prevention and mutual support as key partners.”

The COVID-19 outbreak has tested the capability and combat readiness of the PLA. Most of several thousand PLA medics were mobilised and deployed to Wuhan within 24 hours, with some to Huo Shenshan Hospital arriving within 12 hours from the time they received orders to mobilise.

The medics were transported via strategic air transportation utlising a fleet of three Ilyushin Il-76 Candid and two Shaanxi Y-9 medium-range cargo aircraft and six new Chinese manufactured Xi’an Y-20 Kunpeng strategic transport aircraft.

This is the first “non-warfare military operation” for the Yu-20 transporters since declared operational with the Chinese air force in 2016.