Expert Speak War Fare
Published on Jun 02, 2021
A look at China’s biowarfare ambitions

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the world for a year and a half now. And since the very beginning, people have questioned the origins of the virus that is causing the mayhem. Currently, the two dominant theories are:  a) that the virus evolved naturally to become capable of starting a pandemic, and b) it was made in a lab and given the desired characteristics that enable it to infect humans. So far, though, there is no definitive evidence supporting either notion. Amidst this, a document recently came to light that has reinvigorated the origin debate and brought the research and development of biological weapons back into focus.

Titled, The Unnatural Origin of SARS and New Species of Man-Made Viruses as Genetic Bioweapons, the paper was written in 2015 by 18 Chinese military scientists and weapons experts. They stated that a family of viruses called coronaviruses could be “artificially manipulated into an emerging human disease virus, then weaponised and unleashed in a way never seen before.” Noteworthily, the cause of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a coronavirus that first emerged in Wuhan, China, and was named SARS-CoV-2. The document also highlighted how these engineered viruses will lead to a “new era of genetic weapons” and fantasised about a bioweapon attack that could cause the “enemy’s medical system to collapse.”

This document, along with other intelligence inputs, has prompted US President Joe Biden to direct his Intelligence Community (IC) to investigate and report the origins of the virus in 90 days. While the investigation’s results are awaited, we must look at China’s philosophy and capabilities in the realm of biowarfare as Beijing’s ambitions and aggression grow.

Biological weapons and China

Of the many military applications of biotechnology, the creation of biological weapons is the most lethal and offensive. Seventeen countries have had or are suspected of currently having a biological weapons programme. They include Canada, China, Cuba, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Libya, North Korea, Russia, South Africa, Syria, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

China’s earliest experience with biological warfare (BW) was during the Second World War when the Japanese carried out BW agent attacks against them. These attacks included the use of fleas carrying the bubonic plague. A few decades later, in 1984, China acceded to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) that “effectively prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling, and use of biological and toxin weapons.” Publicly, China has stated that it has observed its obligations under the BWC in “good faith” and claims that it does not develop, produce, stockpile, or possess biological weapons. Further, China has denied ever having biological weapons or their delivery systems. These assertions, however, have repeatedly been contested.

In 1993, US intelligence assessed two civilian-run biological research centres that were previously known to have produced and stored biological weapons to be controlled by the Chinese military. In the same year, the US stated publicly for the first time that “it is highly probable that China has not eliminated its BW {biological warfare} program” since acceding to the BWC. Concerns over China’s compliance with the BWC have persisted ever since.

Later, in a 1999 report, US intelligence recorded its opinion that China may value “possessing a small inventory of chemical and biological weapons, or the essential components of such weapons, as a deterrent against potential chemical and biological threats or attacks.” This, they further stated, was especially likely since the Chinese believe that superpowers have attacked them using biological weapons in the past. An allegation that the US used BW agents—including smallpox, plague, typhus, and anthrax—during the Korean War was reported to be accepted as fact within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

When not denying the existence of a BW programme, China has called its military research activities defensive in nature. In 1994, Fu Genming, then the head of the PLA’s Anti-Biological Warfare Unit, stated that the “PLA does not have an offensive ‘biological warfare unit’ or ‘bacteriological warfare unit.’ But it does have an anti-biological warfare unit.” Officially, this unit is known as the Military Medical Research Institute of the Beijing Military Region, or Institute of Military Medicine, and is tasked with studying infectious diseases.

Regardless, it has been alleged that China has conducted offensive BW research with fatal consequences. Ken Alibek, a former First Deputy Director of the Soviet Biopreparat, has claimed that in the late 1980s in Xinjiang province—near China’s nuclear testing site at Lop Nor—two epidemics of hemorrhagic fever “were caused by an accident in a lab where Chinese scientists were weaponising viral diseases”.

More recently, the emphasis on biotechnologies in China’s “Made in China 2025” initiative and its current five-year plan has been highlighted. Although innocuous by itself, the potential for military applications of the research becomes apparent when coupled with other developments that are taking place in China. As the US has noted, China’s National GeneBank DataBase (CNGBdb) is one of the world’s largest repositories of genetic information. While this information can be used toward developing more effective treatment plans against diseases and precision medicine, it can also be used to engineer precision bioweapons. Further, China’s National Intelligence Law and its Military-Civil Fusion strategy will give its military access to all civilian research and infrastructure, theoretically turning all dual-use technologies offensive.

China’s BW capabilities

In 1999, the US Department of Defense (DoD) assessed China to have, in addition to ballistic and cruise missiles, “a variety of fighters, bombers, helicopters, artillery, rockets, mortars, and sprayers available as potential means of delivery for NBC weapons.” In a 2001 report, DoD added that “China possesses an advanced biotechnology infrastructure as well as the requisite munitions production capabilities necessary to develop, produce, and weaponise biological agents.”

Over the years, China is said to have researched potential BW agents—such as the causative agents of tularemia, Q fever, plague, anthrax, eastern equine encephalitis, and psittacosis—and possess the technology to mass-produce most traditional BW agents—including the causative agents of anthrax, tularemia, and botulism. There is also the possibility that China has weaponised ricin, botulinum toxins, and the causative agents of anthrax, cholera, plague, and tularemia. Highly virulent viruses such as SARS, influenza H5N1, Japanese encephalitis, and dengue have been studied at the now infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology as well.

Over the years, China is said to have researched potential BW agents—such as the causative agents of tularemia, Q fever, plague, anthrax, eastern equine encephalitis, and psittacosis—and possess the technology to mass-produce most traditional BW agents

China also seems to be interested in aerobiology. Laboratory-scale aerosolisation experiments with microorganisms have reportedly been conducted, and China itself, in its voluntary confidence-building declarations under the BWC, has listed its research on biological aerosols. Li Yimin, a Chinese biological weapons specialist, has praised BW agent aerosols for their effectiveness over very large areas as well.

Interestingly, in 1993, Beijing declared eight research facilities as having a “national defencive biological warfare R&D programme.” These included vaccine-producing facilities, such as the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products that is used by Sinopharm. Since then, a 2015 study has found 12 facilities affiliated with the governmental defense establishment and 30 facilities affiliated with the PLA to be involved in the research, development, production, testing, or storage of biological weapons. The Wuhan Institute of Virology was not amongst these facilities, though the US has recently determined it to have “collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military” and “engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”

Even though assessing China’s military capabilities is notoriously difficult due to the level of secrecy and opacity its institutions maintain, a combination of historical records, assessments, and studies provide a view behind the Great Wall. When it comes to China’s BW programme, this view is unsettling. The way forward, however, should not be the proliferation of biological weapons. Instead, it should be their global destruction. Just as it is unwise to interfere with nature, so is weaponising and fighting wars with it. The consequences could be even more disastrous than the ongoing pandemic.

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Javin Aryan

Javin Aryan

Javin was Research Assistant with ORFs Strategic Studies Programme. His work focuses on military national and international security and Indian foreign and defence policy.

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