Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar
This article may be accessed at http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5668 on the IPCS Web Journal.
The history of armed conflicts is intertwined with the generation of diseases. From antiquity in 1155, when the German Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa poisoned water wells with human bodies in Tortona, Italy as he challenged the papacy, to 1763 when the British deliberately distributed small pox infected blankets to Native American Indians. In recent history during World War I the Spanish influenza caused a pandemic accounting for over 50 million lives. Now imagine a weaponized variant of the pathogen, genetically engineered for survival, binary in nature with artificial intelligence implants to disable or enable the virus, and you have a controllable doomsday weapon. Pathogens with manipulated physiognomies are the next generation of damnable biologic agents; China allegedly leads a covert programme of research in this field.
China’s Biological Warfare (BW) Program is both defensive and offensive in nature and functions as a civil-military amalgam. It is believed to be in an advanced stage that includes weaponization. Its current inventory comprises the full range of traditional biological agents. This, notwithstanding China having ratified the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1984 that prohibits the “development and stockpiling of bacteriological weapons” and decreed their destruction. In the absence of instruments for verification, the BWC has not translated to embargo.
A combination of geopolitical factors may have influenced Chinese leadership into embracing a BW programme. The first is of a historical nature; between 1933 and 1945 Japanese BW attacks and experimentation on Chinese populations killed 270,000 (Chinese news agency Xinhua, also recognised by Japanese scholars). Second, the Chinese belief that the United States conducted BW offensive operations in China and North Korea during the Korean War (1950–53); from 1950 onwards the US possessed an operational BW arsenal till sworn off in 1969. The final factor concerns the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Allegedly, towards the end of World War II, USSR conducted experiments with plague, diphtheria, anthrax and cholera pathogens (Hoffman, The Dead Hand) in Soviet-occupied Mongolia. China’s strategic cooperation in general, involvement with Soviet BW programme in particular and awareness of the goings on at the centre of Soviet research, on the remote island of Vozrozhdeniye in the Sea of Aral would have, undoubtedly provided inspiration to China’s thinking on this mode of warfare. Strategic motivations were governed by their abstract reasoning of the nature and use of weapons of mass destruction in a life and death struggle. Today, as George Keenan had suggested in 1947, China needs the spectre of a permanent enemy to justify its security apparatus.
Under Chairman Mao, from 1949 to 1977, these sensitivities led increasingly to preparation for total war and an arsenal for waging it. By 1978, hamstrung by the terror of the Cultural Revolution and blinkered by its ideological obsession, Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping saw the quest for strategic dominance being stymied by the absence of development and direction. He presided over an end to street power and, in a radical veering from orthodoxy, sought from society the release of dormant capitalistic energies. This kicked off one of the most impactful economic reformations of the 20th century. By 1990, in the wake of the carnage of Tiananmen and the collapse of communism in Europe, China’s military policy was dictated by Deng’s “24 character doctrine”; importantly it mandated a watch, wait and build covert capacities approach. These capacities included the ability to wage BW. The Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao dispensations, from 1993 to 2012 quite steadfastly continued with Deng’s policies and path of Controlled Capitalism.
China’s BW strategy is a declaration of their resolve to make genetic weapons instruments of “bloodless victory.” In 2016, the Chinese government launched the National Gene Bank, which is the world’s largest repository of genetic data. It aims to “use China’s genetic resources, safeguard national security in bioinformatics, and enhance China’s capability to seize the strategic heights” in BW (Kania & Vorndick Defense One August 2019)
The SARS Episode of November 2002 constitutes a testimony to the lack of transparency and raised suspicion of state involvement. The lesson to be learned was the need for unambiguity and information sharing where infectious diseases were concerned. This did not seem to be the case in the recent outbreak of COVID-19; an examination of the chronology will suggest that while China formally intimated the WHO of the outbreak on 31 Dec 2019, the first cases reported by the late Dr Li Winliang (a “casualty” himself) were on 01 December (or were they earlier?)
Circumstantial evidence suggesting China’s involvement in release (inadvertently?) of the COVID-19 virus is mounting. In March 2019, under mysterious circumstances a shipment of exceptionally virulent microorganisms (Ebola, Coronavirus, SARS etc.) from Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) found their way to Wuhan. The event triggered a major scandal questioning how the lethal viruses were transferred to China. Following investigation, the incident was traced to Chinese operatives working at NML It led to their expulson.
The Group comprising Dr Qiu, Dr Cheng and a host of intermediaries had direct links with several BW civil-military fusion laboratories in China which included the Institute of Military Veterinary Sciences, Academy of Military Medical Sciences, Changchun Centre for Disease Control, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Hubei. While the nature of Dr. Qiu’s research is not entirely known, what is alleged is that it was vital for the Chinese BW development particularly in weaponizing Coronavirus, Ebola, Nipah and Rift Valley fever viruses. The investigation is on-going and even suggests that earlier ‘artful’ shipments to China of other viruses took place from 2006 to 2018. Incidentally, the Wuhan Institute of Virology was held responsible for the leak of SARS virus in 2003 (Guizhen Wu). The SARS is an engineered synthesis of measles and mumps virus not found in nature (Sergei Kolesnikov Russian Academy of Medical Sciences).
Let us now examine the fatal relapse in China of the many who were considered cured and rid of COVID-19. What if, it is in fact, a Chinese dual use BW research programme gone horrifically wrong? Reminiscent of the reported Soviet experiment with re-engineering pathogens within a pathogen (Hoffman); the first stage illness was carried by an innocuous fast spreading endemic microbe while the second pathogen would be genetic material that would cause the body to attack and breakdown its own vital systems.
In the midst of mutation theories of the pathogen from bats to pangolin to man and its probable leak in a bio-experiment; there are many not so convincing allegations of cause and conspiracies with rumour mills working overtime and fake news clouding perceptions. What we do know is that COVID-19 originated in Wuhan from where it was inflicted on the world’s people. How, when and why remain unrequited questions. In this ambience it becomes increasingly important to closely monitor the Chinese military’s activities in BW. While it may be impractical to expect China to recompense for global disruption and mass casualties, what can be imposed is the demand for verifiable transparency in their BW programme and making their laboratories indubitably transparent.