Engaging China on Bioweapons and Beyond

This article is part of World War “V”: The COVID-19 Pandemic, a collection of all CNS COVID-19-related articles.

May 28, 2020
Richard Pilch

Over the past several weeks, Western governments have increasingly called attention to the uncertain origin of COVID-19.[1] While most experts and analysts believe that the pandemic stemmed from natural zoonotic spillover,[2] many also acknowledge that a laboratory accident cannot be ruled out.[3] The laboratory origin hypothesis holds that peacefully directed research at a laboratory in Wuhan, China, could conceivably have led to a worker infection or inadvertent release, for example in infectious waste, that sparked person-to-person spread in the surrounding community. To be clear, the laboratory origin hypothesis in no way suggests that COVID-19 may be the result of illegal biological warfare (BW) experiments; however, some media outlets as well as members of the Trump Administration have on occasion failed to make this distinction, conflating peaceful and illicit laboratory activities and thus sending mixed messages to their constituencies and the general public.[4]

Asian woman with glasses in a lab coat with a syringe

Could vs. Would

In today’s world, virtually every country has access to the building blocks necessary to make a biological weapon.[5] The question is whether a country would attempt to do so. Moral and ethical arguments aside, biological weapons are prohibited by the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), a multilateral disarmament treaty of 183 states parties that bans biological weapons development and related activities. While countries such as Iraq and the Soviet Union have breached the BWC in the past, an argument can be made that each country’s breach was strategic: Iraq to counter superior military manpower and perceived WMD threats in the region (e.g., on the part of Iran),[6] and the Soviet Union to gain an asymmetric advantage over the US in the great power competition that characterized the Cold War. Would pursuing an offensive biological weapons capability similarly fit the prevailing strategy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)?

China’s grand strategy is founded upon technological superiority and economic expansion in the Global South. That strategy has enjoyed remarkable success: China’s corresponding Belt and Road Initiative has engaged more than 60 countries and invested over $200B to corresponding infrastructure development of to date.[7] However, one enduring risk to the strategy’s ultimate success is China’s perception on the global stage. A negative perception would undermine China’s ongoing soft power investment, which might explain the PRC’s concerted efforts during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic not only to project strength but to emerge as a global leader in the area of global health security.

The discovery of a covert offensive BW program in China would threaten not only China’s external relationships with both partner nations and key international organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), World Trade Organization (WTO), and World Bank, but also China’s internal stability. Biological weapons are widely abhorred, perhaps nowhere more so than in China, where the Chinese people suffered BW attacks at the hands of the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War that coincided with World War II.[8] COVID-19 can only be expected to exacerbate those sentiments, placing long overdue emphasis on China’s central role in preventing future outbreaks with pandemic potential.[9] And China has other, more predictable military options for area denial and deterrence, which form the basis of its national military strategy.[10]

Biological weapons development requires a conscious decision to invest money, human and material resources, and time in contravention to interventional law. There is no indication in the open source domain – including statements from Chinese leadership, state media reports, government budgetary allocations, and scientific publications or lack thereof – that China has made any such decision, despite its access to the necessary building blocks. Accordingly, the US State Department’s 2019 report on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments assessed that “[i]nformation indicates that the People’s Republic of China (China) engaged during the reporting period in biological activities with potential dual-use applications, which raises concerns regarding its compliance with the BWC.”[11] However, the only way to know for sure is to engage China collaboratively.

A Win-Win Approach

The United States and China share a responsibility to ensure the health security of the global community. This requires, at a minimum, transparent information sharing, as was witnessed with the early sharing of SARS-CoV-2’s genomic structure by Chinese scientists that enabled scientists in other nations, including the United States, to begin developing targeted countermeasures. More beneficial would be the establishment of a global surveillance and detection system to provide both early warning of public health events of international concern (PHEIC) and an immediate conduit for that same level of information sharing and rapid countermeasure development. The ideal would be an era of unprecedented government-to-government partnership, the foothold for which is already established in academia, to better understand and prevent transboundary infectious disease threats from being realized in the first place.

To get there, we need to rebuild mutual trust. This starts with an open scientific exchange that fosters collaboration and transparency; it is imperative that both nations allow such exchange to continue unimpeded. From there, the United States and China should identify and implement a series of bilateral confidence-building measures (CBMs) focused on global health security, beginning with a scientific and policy dialogue to incrementally establish mutual goals for the safety and prosperity of each nation as well as the global community. CBMs would be expected to include near real-time information-sharing on qualifying infectious disease outbreaks in accordance with the WHO’s International Health Regulations (IHR 2005) as well as technical exchanges that might include international working groups, laboratory visitations and exchanges, and joint training exercises on an international scale.

A Model of Success

The US Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program offers a model and precedent for such engagement. For more than two decades, CTR has built relationships with nations around the world, including China, to reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).[12] On the biological side, the program’s purview has extended to natural threats in the wake of SARS 2003, H5N1 and H1N1 influenza, and the 2014–15 West Africa Ebola outbreak, effectively bridging scientists and public-health professionals around the world for the welfare of the global community.

If CTR’s designation as a defense program presents insurmountable challenges, the program may take on a partner agency such as the US Department of Health and Human Services, as it has successfully done in the past, or be fully ported to a more suitable agency like the Department of State. Which US agency takes the lead matters little; what is important is that such cooperation exists, it has enabled the US and partner nations like Russia and China to overcome past differences for the common good, and China, having benefitted from the program directly, understands its value. If nothing else, the program offers a starting point.

To this end, I ask the US to take the first step. Engage. Open our doors. Demonstrate our commitment to the fundamental principle that we are all accountable for the gravest threats of both nature and our own making – because only together can these threats be overcome.

If we set such an example, China will follow.


Dr. Richard Pilch is the Director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS).



[1] See, for example, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/pressure-grows-china-independent-investigation-pandemic-s-origins.

[2] See, for example, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7194821/

[3] See, for example, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/how-did-covid-19-begin-its-initial-origin-story-is-shaky/2020/04/02/1475d488-7521-11ea-87da-77a8136c1a6d_story.html; https://www.newsweek.com/controversial-wuhan-lab-experiments-that-may-have-started-coronavirus-pandemic-1500503.

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2020/05/03/world/asia/03reuters-health-coronavirus-usa-pompeo.html;

[5] Building blocks for a biological weapon include (1) the hazardous biological agent itself; (2) the equipment/infrastructure necessary for its acquisition, production, formulation, and delivery as a weapon; and (3) the expertise necessary for the same. Most biological agents are widely available in both nature and the laboratory (where legitimate research, e.g., on pathogenesis and therapy, is performed). As well, both the equipment/infrastructure and expertise necessary to produce a bulk amount of agent, formulate it, and deliver it are largely dual use in nature, meaning that the same materials and thus knowledge required for the peaceful development and production of experimental and commercial products like food additives, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and vaccines can be diverted toward weapons-related applications with relative ease.

[6] Republic of Iraq, Biological Full Final and Complete Disclosure (FFCD) to the United Nations, September 1997, Chapter 1.8.1.

[7] See, for example, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative

[8] See, for example, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/04/world/germ-war-a-current-world-threat-is-a-remembered-nightmare-in-china.html. Guillemin J. Hidden Atrocities. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

[9] COVID-19, H5N1 and H7N9 influenza, and SARS all originated in China, where longstanding cultural practices at the animal-human interface are widely acknowledged to increase the risk of zoonotic spillover. See, for example, https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2002106?query=featured_home

[10] See, for example, https://www.csis.org/analysis/chinas-new-2019-defense-white-paper; https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/conf_proceedings/CF145/CF145.chap7.pdf

[11] https://www.state.gov/2019-adherence-to-and-compliance-with-arms-control-nonproliferation-and-disarmament-agreements-and-commitments-compliance-report/, pp. 45-46. Of note, the report also states that “the United States does not have sufficient information to determine whether China eliminated its assessed biological warfare (BW) program, as required under Article II of the Convention… The United States assesses China possessed an offensive biological warfare program from the early 1950s to at least the late 1980s. Although China has submitted BWC Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) each year since 1989, China’s CBM reporting has never disclosed that it ever pursued an offensive BW program.” Information either to support or refute this assessment is inconclusive in the open source domain, and China’s submitted CBMs are locked to the public (https://bwc-ecbm.unog.ch/?field_form_year_tid=555).

[12] https://www.energy.gov/articles/us-energy-secretary-moniz-and-chinese-atomic-energy-authority-open-new-nuclear-security; https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/03/31/us-china-joint-statement-nuclear-security-cooperation

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