Rise Of China’s Biological Warfare Program

China’s Biological Warfare Program is believed to be in an advanced stage that includes research and development, production and weaponization capabilities. Its current inventory is believed to include the full range of traditional chemical and biological agents with a wide variety of delivery systems including artillery rockets, aerial bombs, sprayers, and short-range ballistic missiles.


China's Biological Warfare Program
China’s Biological Warfare Program


A combination of past and present geostrategic factors distinctly affect the Chinese approaches and outlooks with regard to Biological Warfare. The first major factor is the relapsing Japanese Biological Warfare attacks against and human Biological Warfare experimenting on Chinese populations, which took place from 1933 to 1945, killing and injuring tens of thousands, without the Chinese being able to cope or retaliate.

The employment of Biological Warfare against the Chinese by the Japanese military had a long-lasting impact in China. The Chinese official news agency, Xinhua, reported in 2002, that ‘at least 270,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians were slaughtered by Japanese germ-warfare troops between 1933 and 1945’, according to an ‘in-depth study by Chinese and Japanese scholars.’

The second factor is the Chinese belief (whether sound or unsound) that the United States (US) conducted Biological Warfare offensive operations in China (and North Korea) during the Korean War (1950–53), alongside with the evident fact that between 1950 and 1972, the US possessed an operational Biological Warfare arsenal.

The third factor concerns the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Allegedly, near the end of World War II, USSR conducted experiments with plague, anthrax and cholera in Soviet-occupied Mongolia. Later on, tests with various vaccines were conducted by the USSR in Mongolia for a long period of time, concomitantly with the persisting communist brotherhood between China and USSR and their strategic cooperation in general, and Chinese awareness and following (to a certain extent) of the colossal Biological  Warfare program run by the USSR in particular.

A comprehensive study of the aspects pertaining to those geostrategic factors was published in 1999—entitled China and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Implications for the United States—within the framework of a conference ponsored by the US National Intelligence Council and Federal Research Division.

Collectively, these solidly formed Chinese perspectives shaped the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) approaches and outlooks pertaining to Biological Warfare, and yielded, naturally, a wide Chinese Biological Warfare Program which still persists fully viably—if appreciably concealed—and comprises both defensive and offensive sub-programs. Often located and working conjunctively, each of the two sub-programs, however, constitutes a strategically distinct entity.

Biological Weapons Convention

China joined the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1984, 12 years after the Convention was opened for signature by the international community. 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 accusations made by the US in regard to an ongoing offensive Biological Warfare Program conducted by Beijing. Unsurprisingly, the first wave China generated within that context begun with a ‘Joint Statement on Biological Weapons Convention’, issued by Presidents Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton during the Sino-US summit meeting that took place in China in June 1998, as follows:

Recognizing the threat posed by biological and toxin weapons, the United States and China reaffirm their strong support for the complete global elimination of biological weapons. As States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention, the two sides stress the importance of the Convention to international peace and security, fully support the purposes and objectives of the Convention, and favor comprehensively strengthening the effectiveness and universality of the Convention.

Various further steps were taken by China, so as to manifest a supportive—if not entirely favourable—attitude towards the BWC. In its 17 October 2002 announcement on the promulgation of ‘Regulations on Export Control of Dual-use Biological Agents and Related Equipment and Technologies’, China stated that it ‘has never developed, produced or stockpiled any biological weapons, and never assisted any country to acquire or develop these weapons.’

The second wave coincides with the period 2006 to 2009, widely accentuated by Chinese diplomacy with respect to the BWC. Once again, so it seems, this was in response to accumulating American accusations regarding an ongoing Biological Warfare Program run by China.

The aspect of widening cooperation among state parties was largely pointed at as well by China, in 2007:

All States Parties should make full use of the Convention as an important platform to strengthen cooperation and communication, promote implementation and other capacity of the Convention. China believes that adopting effective national implementation measures in accordance with the Convention and respective national situations constitutes basic obligations for the States Parties, as well as the important prerequisite and guarantee for effective implementation of all articles of the Convention.

In a white paper on China’s National Defence issued in 2008 by the Chinese State Council, the chapter on arms control and disarmament emphasized adherence to the BWC:

China observes in good faith its obligations under the BWC, and supports the multilateral efforts aimed at strengthening the effectiveness of the Convention. China has actively participated in the meetings of the parties to the Convention and the meetings of experts in a pragmatic manner. China has already established a comprehensive legislation system for the implementation of the Convention, set up a national implementation focal point, and submitted its declarations regarding confidence-building measures to the Implementation Support Unit of the Convention in a timely fashion.

In 2009, China accentuated its approach concerning Article X of the BWC, noting, ‘All provisions including Article X of the Convention are equally important and should be fully implemented. To strengthen international cooperation helps improve the implementation capability of States Parties, promote the effectiveness of the Convention and finally enhance the universalization of the Convention.’

China also referred, in 2009, to the aspect of tackling the spread of hazardous infectious diseases as being closely related to the objectives of the BWC: ‘Information about any outbreak of acute infectious diseases should be shared in accordance with the current practice of relevant international organizations.’

The SARS Epidemic

Although the latter constitutes a self-evident rule for long, the opposite conduct was exhibited by China from November 2002—when a sever acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic broke out in the country—till February 2003, when China reported it for the first time to the World Health Organization (WHO), disclosing the seriously threatening event (the causative virus spread from China to 37 countries) during three months.

China declared that there is only one biohazard installation with maximal safety level (P4) throughout the country, although this is doubtful. Uniquely, across China, and officially, the Wuhan Institute of Virology is the sole facility that is equipped with such biohazard measure, furnished by a French supplier. The Institute investigates highly virulent viruses, such as SARS14, influenza H5N115, Japanese encephalitis16, and dengue. Besides this, the germ causing anthrax is studied at the Institute too (which is beyond the discipline of virology).

During the last five years, China has reiterated various BWC aspects and declarations it had previously mentioned, as described. All in all, its diplomacy regarding the BWC is consistent and noticeably in favour of the Convention. And yet, it stands in contradiction to the China’s Biological Warfare Program, which is both defensive and offensive.

At any rate, China legitimately adheres, outwardly, to the requirements posed by the BWC in terms of defensive profile and biosecurity implementation. The relevance and characteristics of those aspects in relation to China have been discussed in detail, fairly professionally, by senior Chinese scientists within two notable reviews, forming, nevertheless, a screen of vagueness over the core components of China’s Biological  Warfare Program, especially those dealing with bio-weaponry.

Rise of China’s Biological Warfare Program

During the Korean War (1950–53), the earliest semblance of routinized defence against Biological Warfare in the PLA were the 1952 sanitation/anti-plague units, formed through the involvement of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army in Korea. At the same time, intensive educational campaigns to rid disease-carrying pests were conducted, combined with experience of supposed Biological Warfare casualties treated during the Korean War.

Consequently, in 1954, PLA delegations and students visited the USSR for training in microbiology and infectious diseases. Officially, China declared that its BWs defence programme was initiated in 1958. It was based on a network of anti-plague stationary and mobile facilities (similar to the Soviet one), aiming to cope with plague and further hazardous infectious diseases.

The defensive programme had considerably been evolving during the 1960s, while an offensive Biological Warfare program was initiated in conjunction. By the mid-1970s, a comprehensive, orderly defensive alignment had been already operating within China’s Biological Warfare Program, while an effective offensive BW program was run concurrently.

The latter was formed as an outcome of the influential geostrategic factors mentioned earlier, yet, presumably, was no less a result of an innate Chinese will to possess an arm of high strategic value, in terms of sub-nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Such motive seems to typically reside in the Chinese national outlook regarding nearly any advanced weaponry.

China acceded to the BWC in 1984, but in a report entitled Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control Agreements, the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency contended: ‘China maintained an offensive biological weapons program throughout the 1980s. The program included the development, production, stockpiling or other acquisition or maintenance of biological warfare agents.’

The Pentagon also published a similar paper, entitled ‘Proliferation: Threat and Response’, which claimed that China’s Biological Warfare Program includes manufacturing of infectious microorganisms and toxins. In 1993, US intelligence officials stated that it was highly probable that China had an active and expanding offensive BWs program, following assessment that two civilian-run biological research centers were actually controlled by the Chinese military.

The research centres were known to have engaged previously in production and storage of BW. The American suspicions intensified in 1991 when one of the suspected biological centres was enlarged. Suspicions heightened further after Beijing made, according to a US official, a ‘patently false’ declaration to the United Nations (UN) that it had never made any germ weapons or conducted any work to bolster defences against a biological attack.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry subsequently described all this as groundless, denying that China had a germ weapons programme. In 1995, President Clinton transmitted to the US Congress his statutory annual report, Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control Agreements. On China, it said:

‘[T]here are strong indications that China probably maintains its offensive BW program.’ In its Chemical and Biological Defense Program Annual Report and the Chemical and Biological Defense Program Performance Plan for 2001, the US Department of Defense was even more specific, contending: ‘China possesses the munitions production capabilities necessary to develop, produce and weaponize biological agents’.

Convening a hearing on China’s proliferation practices in 2003, the US–China Economic and Security Review Commission was informed as follows:

The US believes that despite being a member of the Biological Weapons Convention, China maintains a BW program in violation of its BWC obligations. The United States believes that China’s consistent claims that it has never researched, produced or possessed BW are simply not true, and that China still retains its BW program.

Although China has submitted its voluntary annual BWC confidence-building measure (CBM) data declarations every year, the US Department of State assessed in 2005 that the information submitted therein continued to be ‘inaccurate and misleading’. Further, ‘BWC CBMs since 1991 have called on the States Parties to declare, among other things, their past offensive activities, which China has not done. On the contrary, China insists it never had such a program at all.’

Likewise, in 2007, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) testimony for the US Senate, the Select Committee on Intelligence, entitled ‘Current and Projected National Security Threats’ (in both open and closed sessions), contended that the DIA believes China ‘continues to maintain some elements of an offensive biological weapons program.’

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the DIA and intelligence agencies in other countries most probably continue to carefully follow and monitor China’s Biological Warfare Program. Irrespective of publicly bringing out their findings—if partially—or totally keeping them, Beijing’s BWP entirely persists in all likelihood. It is assumed that it includes an extremely secretive operational, sizable BW arsenal, extremely hidden, which is steadily being upgraded.

China’s Biological Warfare Programme: An Integrative Study with Special Reference to Biological Weapons Capabilities by Dany Shoham published in Journal of Defence Studies.

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