COVID-19, China’s bioweapon warfare strategy and global security

By Dr. Nalin Kumar Mohapatra

It is high time that the international community takes note of China’s vicious adventurism of employing bioweapons in its military strategies. There is substantial body of journalistic work and scientific evidences that suggest Covid19 originated “in the Wuhan lab.” Both these two trajectories are to be kept in mind while looking at the present debate regarding the role of China in spreading the Covid-19 virus.

Since the last two years, an issue which is getting increasing attention from policy makers, medical practitioners, scientists along with the common masses is the threat posed by the Covid-19 virus and its impact on human security. The entire world is confronting the pandemic and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared it as a pandemic. India is also facing the “second wave” of Covid. An issue which needs to be discussed at length is whether Covid-19 is a mere virus having a natural origin or has it been developed in a lab as part of a bioweapon strategy by China. In this regard, it is pertinent to discuss here what the nature of a bioweapon and its historical genesis? How is the scientific community assessing Covid-19? To get a clearer picture about Covid, one has to locate the discourses in the context of China’s biowarfare strategy which has evolved over the years and its synergy with military strategy. It is also necessary to study how Covid-19 is having an impact on global security?

Defining Biological Weapons

The most acceptable definition of biological weapons is given by WHO which states that “biological weapons are microorganisms like virus, bacteria, fungi, or other toxins that are produced and released deliberately to cause disease and death in humans, animals or plants.” In this regard WHO includes “Ebola or Lassa viruses (which) were used as biological agents.” Similarly, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in its definition of bioterrorism states that “a biological attack, or bioterrorism, is the intentional release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs that can sicken or kill people, livestock, or crops.” The above definition includes “Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax, and is one
of the most likely agents to be used in a biological attack.”

As observed by Gregory Koblentz in an article titled “Pathogens as Weapons: The International Security Implications of Biological Warfare” published in 2003/2004 in the prestigious journal, International Security, “Modern biological weapons are designed to disseminate pathogens or toxins in an aerosol cloud of microscopic particles that can be readily inhaled and retained in the lungs of the exposed population.”

History of Bioweapons

The phenomenon of biological weapons is not a recent one. If one goes through scholarly works, there is ample evidence to prove the point that it was used as an instrument of warfare in the past as well. It may be recalled here that in the 14th century “Black Death” caused havoc both in Asia and Europe. At that time Central Asia was the epicentre of “Black Death” as outlined by Michael W. Dols in his article “The Second Plague Pandemic and Its Recurrences in the Middle East:1347- 1894” in the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient. In fact, the spread of Bubonic plague is considered as one of the major factors responsible for the “decaying” of “Silk Road” which flourished through Central Asia as highlighted by Andre Gunder Frank, George W. Christopher, Daniel M. Gerstein, Edward M. Eitzen and James W. Martin, in an article titled “Historical Overview: From Poisoned Darts To Pan-Hazard Preparedness” published in an edited book titled ‘Medical Aspects of Biological Warfare.’ It explains how the Mongols were forced to retreat from the Crimean city of Caffa and while retreating they spread a virus into the city of its adversary. In its aftermath, it brought large-scale destruction to the city. (p.3)

It is also important to mention John M. Barry’s book, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the 1918 Pandemic, which also gives a broader picture about the origin and its impact of influenza which shook the world in the form of “Spanish Influenza.” A number of studies suggest that during both the First and Second World Wars, there was widespread use of
biological weapons. Even during the heydays of the Cold War period, both superpowers- the then Soviet Union and the US- traded charges against each other for initiating biological weapon programmes. The book written by Milton Leitenberg, Raymond A. Zilinskas, Jens H. Kuhn titled ‘The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History’, offers a
glimpse of the Soviet biological weapon programme. Similar studies suggest the United States also established the “Chemical Warfare Society” during the 1st World War to produce biological weapons.

What worries the international community is the acquisition of biological weapons by radical, terrorist groups. This is evident from the alleged role of Aum Shinrikyo in spreading anthrax in Japan. Similarly, there were reports that al-Qaida tried to acquire biological weapons. An article published in Non-proliferation Review, titled “Does Intent equal Capability? Al-Qaeda and Weapons of Mass Destruction”, written by Sammy Salama and Lydia Hansell highlights how the dreaded terrorist organisation al-Qaida took active steps to illegally acquire plague and anthrax bacteria from Kazakhstan to produce biological weapons. (p.619)

Australian Journalist Anthony Klan, has also made a sensational revelation which was reported in Economic Times, July 25, 2020, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology of China and the Pakistan’s military establishment have entered into a joint collaboration to produce “emerging infectious diseases” and “anthrax”. Klan’s view needs to be taken seriously in
view of the nexus between China and Pakistan over the years.

Some of the above analyses provide both a theoretical as well as historical context to study the Covid-19 pandemic which originated in China’s Wuhan city. It is necessary to analyse how the scientific community is looking at the Covid-19 virus.

Scientific Interpretations of Covid-19 Virus

The most important point that needs to be highlighted here is how the scientific community looks at Covid-19. The recently convened “Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2: China Part” conducted by Joint WHO-China Study has arrived at inconclusive evidence. In fact, the report generated more questions about the origin of virus than answers. For instance, the report stated that “when working in particular with virus cultures, but also with animal inoculations or clinical samples, humans could become infected in laboratories with limited biosafety, poor laboratory management practice, or following negligence.” It further added that “the Wuhan CDC laboratory moved on December 2, 2019 to a new location near the Huanan market. Such moves can be disruptive for the operations of any laboratory.” (p.139). The same report in its concluding observations gave a calculative answer when it stated that “a laboratory origin of the pandemic was considered to be extremely unlikely.” (p.19)

The report could not arrive at a substantial conclusion which raises many doubts regarding Covid 19 as a “lab originated virus”. It may be noted here that the WHO report has been subject to a lot of criticism. The Director General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated as reported in ABC News that “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive
enough.”

He further went on to state that “further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.” In this regard, it is pertinent to go before 2019 to establish the fact that China has initiated number of steps to produce bioweapons. The same was mentioned in the Chinese official daily Xinhua, dated January 5, 2018 with a caption titled “China’s first P4 laboratory is officially operational to study the world’s most dangerous pathogens.” The report added that “Wuhan National Biosecurity (level 4) Laboratory…will provide China with a complete and internationally advanced biosecurity system in which Chinese researchers can study the world’s most dangerous pathogens.”

It is interesting to note here that after the opening of the lab, the US Embassy in China sent its scientists to the lab and as reported in the New York Times, dated April 14, 2020, and titled “State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses.” The scientists are quoted–“During interactions with scientists at the WIV
laboratory, they noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.” If one carefully goes through the Cable sent by two US scientists and the Xinhua report, it is indicative of contextual evidence that a testing facility for “dangerous pathogen” was present there.

Similarly, former CDC Director Robert Redfield told CNN that “Covid virus originated in a lab” which was reproduced in the Axios, titled “Ex-CDC director says he believes coronavirus originated in Wuhan lab” dated March 26, 2021. Susanna K.P. Lau, et al published an article titled “Possible Bat Origin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2” in Emerg Infect Dis. 2020, in which they explain confirming the view of Redfield that “the first identified case-patient and other early case-patients had not visited the market … suggesting the possibility of an alternative source.” The above article can be further substantiated by a recent research publication titled “Genetics suggests that SARS-CoV-2 is manmade” by Jorma Jormakka and John Fryer (which is in a preprint form and available on Research Gate) highlighting the fact that “that the theory of natural origin for SARS-CoV-2 may not be correct and the alternative theory of the origin of this virus in an escaped virus from a …project may be the more likely cause.” (p.6)

Similarly, Nicholas Wade in an article “The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?” published in Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in May 2021 underlined that “the possibility that the SARS2 virus had escaped from the lab could not be ruled out.”
On the other hand, the recent testimony by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Director of CDC before the US Senate where she stated that the origin of Covid-19 in lab is “certainly one possibility” as reported widely in the press. At the same time Walensky also maintained that this virus “generally come from an animal origin.” A similar view was also can be
observed from Science Magazine in its issue dated May 14, 2021, which published a letter titled “Investigate the origins of COVID-19” in which 18 scientists emphasised We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spill overs seriously.” It may also be added here that both Walensky and Science Magazine gave a slightly different conclusion but never rejected the “lab origin” of Covid-19 virus. This shows that the WHO report on Wuhan Lab cannot be taken at face value. There is a need for further scrutiny of China’s bioweapons strategy by the international community.

Covid-19 Virus and China’s Biowarfare Military Strategy

Going through the above scientific studies one cannot rule out the “lab origin” of Covid. It is also necessary to examine China’s biological weapon programme which will offer a broader picture of the present crisis. One acknowledgeable fact which the scientific community will not deny is that China always pursued a double standard despite being a signatory to the Biological Weapon Convention in 1984. In 1993, a New York Times article titled “China may have revived germ weapons program, U.S. officials say” highlights the clandestine biological weapon programme initiated by the Chinese Communist Party and its leadership. The article quoting a high official of US intelligence stated that “it is highly
probable that China has not eliminated its BW {biological warfare} program”. The article further underlined that (Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) is carrying out such activities in “two centres” located in China. Similarly, the New York Times in an article titled “Soviet Defector Says China Had Accident at a Germ Plant” quoted Soviet defector Kanatjan Alibekov’s book ‘Biohazard’ which stated “China had suffered a serious accident at one of its secret plants for developing biological weapons, causing two major epidemics.” It may be noted that the WHO took a dig at China’s role in the spread of SARS in 2003 as it did not inform the apex health body in time, which further contributed to the spread of the disease beyond China.

The point that needs to be discussed here is that China never bothered to inform the global community and committed glaring mistakes regarding Covid-19, despite being a signatory to the Biological Weapon Convention. The Nuclear Information Project (NIP) in its report has also mentioned that China possesses an advanced biotechnology infrastructure as well as the requisite munitions production capabilities necessary to develop, produce and weaponise biological agents.” The NIP argument can be further substantiated if one goes by the statement made by Dany Shoham,

an Israeli Intelligence official. Shoham was quoted in Washington Times in a piece titled “Coronavirus may have originated in lab linked to China’s biowarfare program” dated January 26, 2020 that “SARS is included within the Chinese BW program, at large, and is dealt with in several pertinent facilities”. A more or less similar view, was echoed by the then U.S Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who also indicted China for an impasse.

It may be underlined here that in recent years China is pursuing an aggressive policy to hegemonise global politics. It has adopted a new policy called “Military -Civil Fusion” to add military strength. Under this plan, the Chinese government strongly advocated closer cooperation between military and civilian sectors to make China a great power. The plan also emphasised extensive use of “interdisciplinary biology” along with other areas like electronics, nanotechnology, etc. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has also taken keen interest in “seizing the strategic opportunity of biotech development” and under 13th Five year plan from 2016-2020 emphasised “bio-breeding, and other next-generation biotech products and services” as quoted in “China’s Military-Civil Fusion Strategy-a View From Chinese Strategist” published by China Aerospace Studies Institute located in Washington.

The Chinese strategy to integrate bioweapon

programme as part of its defense strategy was also emphasised by Zhang Shibo, a former President of National Defense University who in his book New Highland of War emphasised use of “biotechnology” for augmenting an “offensive capability.” Even in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, Xi Jinping stressed the importance of “biosecurity” as part of
“overall national security” in April 2020 as highlighted in the Chinese official newspaper, People’s Daily.

China’s quest for achieving status of global power by employing bioweapons was succinctly outlined by Qiao Lang and Wang Xiangsui, two serving army officers of PLA, in their book published in 1999, and titled “Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America.” Though the book was written in Chinese language to cater to the CCP’s military
establishment, however an English version of the book was published in the United States. Lang and Xiangsui in this book highlight “new methods of warfare” that can be employed by China against an enemy country. As both of them state “It cannot be denied that man made earthquakes, tsunamis., weather disasters, or subsonic wave and new biological and
chemical weapons all constitute new concept weapons… whose immediate goal is to kill and destroy, and which all are related to military affairs, soldiers, munitions.”(p.33)

It is pertinent to highlight here the fact that Chinese strategy of using bioweapons in warfare was rooted in its strategic culture and also reflected in the work of Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist who highlighted that “If one party is at war with another, and the other party does not realise it is at war, the party who knows it’s at war almost always has the advantage and wins the war.” (as quoted in Unrestricted Warfare: China’s Master Plan to Destroy America, p. 6) So it can be stated that China is “at war” with other countries to whom it considers a potential enemy, though in a “silent war” by employing bioweapons.

Implications for Global Security

From the above analysis, what are the major inferences one can draw with regards to global security. In this regard, it needs to be underlined here that in the post-1991 era, China tried to fill the geopolitical vacuum in global politics. This was more so pronounced in the aftermath of 1995. To secure its position as a global power, China has also tried to source raw materials like oil and gas from faraway place. In this process, Beijing wanted a market and soon cheap Chinese products flooded international markets. China tried to monopolise international trade and embedded its foreign policy on a principle of imperial design aiming at hegemonic control of global politics. The initiation of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) by China has also altered the new geopolitical dynamics in global politics. In recent years, however there is also backlash against China and its projects in different parts of the world.

It cannot be ruled out that through trade, China is actually fanning out its imperial goals. In this regard it may be highlighted that “other methods of war” which China is employing is part of an imperial jingoist strategy. As argued by strategic experts and analysts in the post Covid-19 era, China may have used bioweapons against countries who are inimical to its interests. There are reports in both print and electronic media that China has also obstructed the supervision of Wuhan virology lab by WHO experts as a result of which they are not able to arrive at a conclusion whether the virus “originated in a lab” or “has a natural origin.” WHO in its final report has also admitted this fact.

Conclusion

Going by the definition of bioweapons and their use in the past and also looking at China’s aggressive strategic behaviour, it cannot be ruled out that Covid-19 may have originated in the Wuhan lab. It is necessary to underline here that there should be a new multilateral body under UN to probe China’s involvement in Covid-19. The lapses which WHO has admitted while probing the ‘Wuhan lab’ also need to be highlighted. It is high time that the international community takes strong measures to curb China’s expansionist and biowarfare strategies which pose a threat to global security. The 1982 Biological Weapons Convention also needs to be relooked so stringent measures can be initiated against China for its failure to comply with international law.

The writer teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

(Courtesy Economic Times)

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