Civilized nations are bound to obey the law of war embodied in the Geneva Conventions. The Conventions outlaw acts such as the intentional targeting of civilian populations and the creation and stockpiling of biological weapons. Despite those obligations, China is evidently eager to violate the Conventions because of opportunities presented by the advance of medical science.
At least since the 2002 publication of “Unrestricted Warfare,” a book by two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) colonels, Chinese military thinking has extended the concept of a battlefield to every aspect of military and civilian existence. The unlimited “battlefield” now means that China intends to include biological warfare among the most significant means of fighting a war.
From several news reports beginning in 2019 we know of a 2010 book called, “War for Biological Dominance,” by a professor at China’s Third Military Medical University, which emphasized the use of biological warfare. The theoretical basis continued in a 2015 essay by Gen. He Fuchu (then-president of China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences) in which he argued that biotechnology will become the new “strategic commanding heights” of national defense, from biomaterials to “brain control” weapons.
Theory was made into doctrine in the 2017 edition of a PLA National Defense University textbook which debuted a section about biology as a domain of military struggle, mentioning the potential for new kinds of biological warfare to include “specific ethnic genetic attacks.”
China is evidently eager to violate its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention, part of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits the development and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons.
China has reportedly begun using genomic science — the study of DNA “profiles” of individuals and ethnic groups — to identify its Uighur Muslim population, which is being severely oppressed. It has also created a national “gene bank,” intending to make it the world’s largest depository of genomic data.
CFIUS — the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. — is an interagency group that has regulatory power over foreign purchases of U.S. companies and real estate. The State Department and the Department of Defense both play prominent roles in it. Under the Obama-Biden administration, CFIUS foolishly approved Beijing Genomics Incorporated’s (BGI’s) purchase of Complete Genomics Inc., (CGI) a U.S. company, in 2012.
By approving that purchase, CFIUS gave BGI access to CGI’s database of American DNA profiles and entry into the U.S. genomics market. It was akin to enabling the Chinese company Huawei to build a 5G network in the U.S., which President Trump stopped, because an Huawei-built 5G network would give China access to virtually all U.S. data.
BGI claims it is not owned by the Chinese government, but that claim is in doubt because of its several connections to the Beijing regime. BGI hosts government laboratories and several of its executives are former government officials.
In July, two subsidiaries of BGI — Xinjiang Silk Road BGI and Beijing Liuhe BGI — were blacklisted by the United States for their helping the Chinese identify and oppress the Uighurs. BGI itself apparently wasn’t blacklisted because it is heavily involved in genetic studies with companies in the U.S., meaning it has access to vastly more American DNA profiles than the acquisition of CGI gave it.
We have to take seriously China’s thinking about military applications of biological warfare, including specific “ethnic genetic attacks.” By broadening the concept of biowarfare — which it labels one of the principal domains of war — into fields such as genomics, the study of human DNA, China intends to create weapons based on genomic data. The concept is not fanciful.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in Wuhan, China, may have been accidentally or intentionally released from a government laboratory or it may have naturally occurred and been transmitted to humans in a “wet market” that sold animals such as bats and dogs for food. We will never really know. What we do know is that the Chinese government, initially insisting that the virus was not transmittable between humans, let people travel from Wuhan around the world spreading the virus.
China’s study of “ethnic genetic attacks,” however, could soon mean that viruses or other biological organisms could be tailored, by editing their genes, to affect specific ethnic groups or even individuals. Chinese genomic scientists could soon create a virus that would affect Caucasians, Africans or other ethnic groups but not Chinese.
An American genomic scientist I spoke to, who requested anonymity, spoke enthusiastically about tailoring cancer treatments to individuals, using their DNA to amplify the effect of treatments. China’s strategies turn that around, to making tailored genomic weapons.
China’s focus on genomic warfare has attracted the attention of both the FBI’s biological countermeasures unit and the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigation. Both are reportedly highly concerned about the national security effect resulting from the enormous amount of genomic data being gathered in the United States falling into Chinese hands. It must be made illegal for companies such as BGI to access U.S. genomic data and to export such data.
We cannot affect China’s march to genomic weapons. Their development and China’s ability to deploy them effectively may be years away, but China is in a race to enable it to wage war in new and entirely devastating ways. Right now, it’s an arms race in which China is competing only with itself.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”
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