An increasingly assertive China on the global stage has a more than adequate arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). In military parlance, WMDs are weapons employed to wage nuclear, chemical and bacteriological(NBC) warfare and, if ever used, have the capability to inflict horrendous casualties on the enemy.
On 31 Dec 2019 China officially informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) that an unknown virus had struck some Chinese workers causing an ‘unusual pneumonia’ in the port city of Wuhan in central Hubei. That this coronavirus ( officially dubbed COVID-19) has since spread like wildfire all over the globe, affecting over 550,000 people across 160 nations with around 40000 deaths and with fatalities mounting, is indeed a cause for global worry and serious introspection.
Apart from grave human tragedy costs, the monumental impact it has already had on the global economy and mounting with collapsing oil prices and movement of goods and travel coming down drastically, has made the UN’s trade and development agency, UNCTAD, forecasting a mammoth loss of a trillion dollars in 2020 with all its adverse politico-socio-economic problems ! Importantly, this coronavirus epidemic could well become Chinese President Xi Jinping’s most critical internal challenge.
Inside China, normal day to day social and commercial activities have come to a grinding halt with over 750 million people now in quarantine. Unquestioningly, the Chinese image, the world over, has taken a severe beating.
Unconfirmed media reports circulating around also call this phenomenon, perhaps, a botched up biological warfare experiment of the Chinese. China has strongly denied such accusations stating that its biological activities have never had any offensive military applications. It is, however, a part of medical records, that two separate epidemics of hemorrhagic fever did occur in the late 80s in China. These were then attributed to accidents in a laboratory where Chinese scientists were supposedly weaponizing viral diseases.
In addition, the US based Fox News Channel on 8 March 2020 aired the views of US Senator Tom Cotton that the COVID-19 situation was rather serious and the Chinese were lying about it. He had raised concerns about the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory. It is alleged that scientists at this laboratory experiment with dangerous pathogens like Ebola. In Jan 2020, the BBC had also published an article citing two articles from the Washington Times which claimed that the virus was part of China’s bio weapons programme based at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
However, other experts have also opined that there is no conclusive evidence that this laboratory either made this virus as a weapon or allowed it to escape. Nevertheless it will be worthwhile to study and analyse the military ramifications of China’s capabilities in biological warfare.
History of Biological Warfare (BW)
The foundations of BW commenced with the onset of microbiology at the end of the 19th century by the legendary Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch and their followers. Though Chemical Warfare has its modern origins in World War I itself with the use of non-living toxic products produced by living organisms, BW came into international reckoning only in 1942. That year, the US formed the War Research Service. Anthrax and botulinum were researched for their employment as weapons and by June 1944 the US had enough stockpiles to thwart any German forays against them in BW.
BW is also referred as “germ warfare” and biological weapons involve the use of toxins or infectious agents that are biological in origin. This can include bacteria, viruses or fungi. These agents are used to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as part of war strategy. The Hanta virus has a mortality rate of upto 50 percent while Anthrax is one of the most potent biological weapons in the world. Botulinum bacteria as a bio-weapon can be distributed through aerosol or contamination of water and food supplies. Biological wepons normally affect living organisms, can destroy the ecosystem and cause genetic defects on future generations.
China’s Biological Warfare Program
Notwithstanding pious denials by China, as known to nations directly affected by all such moves, the Chinese BW Program is in an advanced stage of development, production and weaponization. China, reportedly, has now in its arsenal a formidable range of delivery systems including artillery rockets, sprayers, aerial bombs and short range ballistic missiles.
Analysed over the past century, China’s approach and strategy towards BW has been conditioned by some major events in the world of BW in the last 70-80 years. The defining factor was the relapsing and experimenting Japanese BW attacks by” Japanese germ-warfare troops” against Chinese population which took place from 1933 to 1945 and killed and injured tens of thousands among the Chinese population.
The Chinese also believe, rightly or wrongly, that the US had conducted BW offensive operations during the Korean War (1950-53) both in China and North Korea. China also had felt that the then USSR ant the end of World War II had conducted experiments with plague, anthrax and cholera in Soviet-occupied Mongolia. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had thus become alive to the destructive potential of BW and took determined steps to also build such a capability.
In a 2015 academic paper, Dr Shoham of Bar-Ilan’s Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies has opined that China has 40 facilities involved in bio-weapons production. According to noted defence and strategic affairs analyst, Monika Chansoria, the ” PLA is pursuing military applications for biology and looking into promising intersections with other disciplines including brain science, super computing and artificial intelligence.” She further adds that “since 2016 the Central Military Commission has funded projects on military brain science, advanced biometric systems, biological and biometric materials, human performance enhancement and “new concept” biotechnology. Chinese military interest in biology as an emerging domain of warfare is guided by strategists who talk about “potential genetic weapons” and the possibility of a “ bloodless victory.” Thus it will be a suicidal step if the world and especially her neighbours disregard China’s forays into the realm of BW.
Biological and Chemical Weapons Convention
The first global protocol which banned the use of biological and chemical weapons in armed conflicts was signed as early as 17 June 1925 in Geneva and is commonly addressed as the Geneva Protocol. China had also been its signatory and reaffirmed its concurrence with it in July 1952. Surprisingly, this Protocol had not banned the production and stockpiling of chemical weapons. However, the stipulation to ban chemical weapons only came about in 1993 which the Chinese ratified it in 1997. The degree of abiding by these conventions by the Chinese remains shrouded in mystery as the PLA Daily in its September 1988 edition has itself revealed that PLA had carried out “chemical defense maneuvers” in Tibet to test its new equipment !
Meanwhile China joined the Biological Weapons Convention(BWC) in 1984, 12 years after it was opened to the global community for ratification and signature. The strategic affairs journal ‘Great Game India’ has expressed that from 1998 to 2009, “two waves expressing China’s declared attitude to the BWC can be observed. The first one, from 1998 to 2002 was apparently a result of increasing accusation made by the US in regard to an ongoing offensive Biological Warfare Program conducted by Beijing.”
During this period a joint statement was issued by US President Bill Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin during the Sino-US summit meeting that took place in China in June 1998 where both the leaders expressed that “…. recognising the threat posed by biological and toxin weapons, the United States and China reaffirm their strong support for the complete elimination of biological weapons.” They further reiterated their support to the objectives of the BWC.
The Chinese, consequent to this summit meeting, continued to impress upon the international community that they were not developing any BW wherewithal or supplying it to any nation.
The journal ‘Great Game India’ further views the period 2006 to 2009 as the second wave regards China’s observance or otherwise of the BWC. Once again, “it seems that this was in response to accumulating American accusations regarding an ongoing Biological Warfare Program run by China.” Whenever any adverse comments were made by the US on alleged bio-programs by the Chinese, were strongly refuted by the latter.
International media has been rife with seemingly accurate reports about biological products factories at Wuchang, Chongqing and Kunming. Biological weapons agents production facilities are also located in Shenyang, Shanghai, Lanzhou and Guangzhou. In addition , three large-scale biological research and production sites are located at Yanan, Xishan and Dalian.
Most nations and scientists the world over have felt that the BWC has been couched in “ambiguous language” and importantly, lacks the mention of a verification mechanism that can be invoked to ascertain if signatory nations are abiding to the safeguard clauses in the BWC. It is pertinent to mention here that as many as 12 nations including China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea have stalled the introduction of a verification mechanism in the BWC. These nations are widely considered to secretly have an ongoing bio-weapons program. Notably, Israel is not a signatory to the BWC—- perhaps it is also pursuing a bio weapons program !
The SARs Epidemic and Current Activities
Notwithstanding China’s sanctimonious proclamations about their adherence to UN conventions on biological and chemical agents, evidence, off and on, crops up when experiments go astray point to the contrary. In Nov 2002, a severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARs) epidemic had broken out in China. It was only in Feb 2003 that China reported to the WHO and subsequently this causative virus had spread to 37 countries in under 3 months.
Dany Shoham, a former Israeli military intelligence officer who has studied Chinese biowarfare has expressed that “Coronaviruses (particularly SARs) have been studied at the Wuhan Institute and are probably held therein. SARs is included in the Chinese BW program, at large, and is dealt with in several pertinent facilities.” Neurology professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the US Special Operations Command, Dr James Giordano, also has opined that China’s growing investments in bio-science, ”looser ethics” around gene-editing and other cutting-edge technology and other activities raises the “spectre of such pathogens being weaponized.”
In addition, Dany Shoham, quoted ibid, has also stated that China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences had developed an Ebola drug called JK-05 but little has been divulged about it or the defence facility’s possession of the virus, prompting speculation its Ebola cells are part of China’s bio-warfare arsenal. Ebola is classified as a “category A” bioterrorism agent and can be easily transmitted and would result in high death rates — unfortunately UN conventions have failed to deter nations from producing such deadly viruses.
Counter-Measures to Thwart Bio-Warfare Dangers
The threat or use of Chemical ,Bacteriological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) weapons is accepted by most nations as it is considered a likely condition in future warfare. Like most nations, India is also vulnerable to biological threats for a variety of reasons. From the security point of view, both China and to a lesser extent, Pakistan (owing to its current bio warfare capability) pose credible threats.
With both nations adept at proxy wars, India thus has to cater for thwarting bio-threats from both state, non-state and sponsored non-state actors. India being predominantly an agriculture based economy, is vulnerable to attacks from a variety of swarming locusts and insects which can substantially destroy production of crops, fruits etc.
Secondly, India suffers from very high density of populations concentrated in unhygienic and congested housing colonies/lanes where an outbreak of epidemics can take a heavy toll. Importantly, India’s healthcare system, especially in rural areas, is far less than adequate, making it vulnerable to higher casualties in case of epidemics.
As India is vulnerable to bio-logical weapons attacks, a strong bio-defence programme requires to be conceived and defensive measures to counter this threat established. India’s DRDO has been working on safety equipment and various devices/sensors to manage /counter the larger CBRN threat. Some equipment has been inducted into the Indian Armed Forces. As regards the BW threat, some counter-measures India can adopt could be as follows :
• India must take the lead, through the United Nations, that currently in force protocols on CBW must be strictly enforced, made more stringent and enforced by international monitoring teams to check whether signatory nations are not producing/stockpiling bio-weapons. Powerful nations, especially those secretly engaged in the development of such weapons, will resent such moves but world opinion must be built up for such measures.
• Security preparedness incorporating both active and passive measures should be carried out and relevant SOPs established after due consideration and contingency drills practiced.
• In India, the Cabinet Committee on Security(CCS) is mandated to oversee all aspects of preparation, mitigation and management of CBRN emergencies. The CCS must now carry out a fresh re-appraisal of the nation’s capabilities to contain/manage such emergencies. In India, separate ministries like Defence, Health, Home, Railways, the Atomic Energy Commission etc are responsible for catastrophic events pertaining to their expertise. It is suggested that the National Disaster Management Authority(NDMA) whose Chairman is the Prime Minister itself maybe made the nodal institution to formally oversee the functioning of these ministries at higher levels of mishaps/problems.
The Vice Chairman NDMA should preferably be a former Service Chief/ Vice Chief who can give the necessary competence and dynamism to the organization in dealing with major catastrophes. The Armed Forces are easily the most competent and well-organised to handle all such emergencies in the nation as been observed in the past.
• Cooperation between nations in the neighbourhood and the region must be endeavoured by India, being one of the largest and powerful nations, in Asia and the globe. PM Modi’s initiative to get SAARC nations together to fight this menace was a welcome step. Potential aggressors who display a propensity of the use of prohibited weapons must be segregated.
• Biological defence is an integrated set of measures designed to maintain the operational effectiveness of an armed force should it be subjected to a BW attack. The Indian Armed Forces will have to be made ready to survive and maintain its ability to fight. Apart from equipping it suitably, the relevant strategy, doctrine, operational planning and for BW and all other WMDs will have to be ensured.
• Importantly, fool-proof early warning and surveillance mechanisms to speedily gauge the advent of any BW attacks/foul play, before it develops into a major cataclysmic event will have to be established. Budgetary constraints will have to liberalized for BW preparedness.
• The socio-economic-politico ramifications of such occurrences must be thoroughly analysed and all state governments alongwith the Centre must draw up contingency plans to manage the humongous problems which emerge after such occurrences like in the current coronavirus pandemic. It will be prudent to analyse our strengths and weaknesses in handling such emergencies and incorporate suitable lessons into governmental policies.
Global problems require global solutions. In the realm of CBRN threats to civilization this truism is a painful reality. As a result of the current and unfortunately, escalating coronavirus pandemic engulfing the globe , countries need to rise above petty national interests to fight this horrendous menace for the survival of humanity. It is incumbent on powerful nations like the US, China, Russia, India, UK and those in the European Union to address it aggressively and jointly. India’s genuine and altruistic contribution, both regionally and globally, to combat this peril is the need of the hour.