Published:  12:01 AM, 30 May 2020

COVID-19: America - China mistrust

COVID-19: America - China mistrust
 
Infected about 60, 00000 world-wide. More than 360,000 died across the world. Fear spreads faster than the virus. Factories are closed. Roads are blocked. Villages are sealed off. Cities are locked down. The outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is the most severe sociopolitical crisis Chinese leaders have grappled with since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. And the crisis is not confined to China. The spread of the virus across borders and the panicky reaction to that spread will have profound effects on the global economy, politics, security, and governance.

The virus's novelty leaves many unknowns. We still don't have a clear idea of its transmissibility and virulence. We do not have a clear idea of the incubation period, which could last up to 24 days. We also don't know how infectious people are before their symptoms manifest and why some cases suddenly become severe. We also don't understand why some patients tested positive a second time even after they seemingly recovered.

Rumors thrive on fear and uncertainty, and the outbreak of the novel coronavirus offers plenty of both. Within weeks of the pathogen's appearance, social media lit up with suggestions that the virus was a biological weapon-either a Chinese one that had escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan or an American one inflicted on Wuhan. While such hearsays are not banishment, given that either the United States or China has incentive to develop biological weapons, they are difficult to dispel, because military officials on both sides still view with suspicion each other's motives in building bio security programmes.

Loopholes in China's bio safety regulations only allow the hearsays to gain more currency. And the lack of trust between the two nations as evidenced by China's initial refusal to allow U.S. disease experts to visit Wuhan is undermining efforts to contain the virus's global spread. But if U.S. disease experts are really available, then why so many American people have got infected, many of them already died and are still dying?

Zero Hedge has been barred from Twitter, but Chinese social media abounds with conjecture that the virus was engineered by the United States as an agent of biological warfare against China. One widely shared conspiracy theory suggests that American soldiers participating in the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan deliberately shed the virus at the Hunan Seafood Market. Contending that "a new type of biological warfare is coming," a retired People's Liberation Army general called for building a permanent bio defense force in China.

The suddenness and mystery of the bug's appearance left fertile ground for surmisal.

The current outbreak in China is not the first to be a rumored biological weapons attack. During the 2002-3 SARS epidemic, a Russian scientist claimed that the virus was a mixture of measles and mumps that could be made only in the lab. Many Chinese seized on this notion and speculated that SARS was a genetic weapon developed by the United States to target them alone. The official China Youth Daily linked a National Institutes of Health-sponsored genetic study in China to the U.S. genetic warfare program.

In the United States, meanwhile, a US bought China expert suggested that the virus was linked to China's bio-warfare program. Yet, SARS was by no means a genetic weapon. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 166 reported SARS patients in the United States in 2003, 58 percent were white and 32 percent were Asian.

Just how likely is either the United States or China to be developing deadly biological weapons for use? A tour through the history of such warfare is instructive.

During World War II, the United States developed biological weapons. Biological agents had certain liabilities for battlefield use: they didn't take effect right away, they could infect one's own forces, they were sensitive to environmental and meteorological conditions, and they could conceivably contaminate an area for longer than intended. Nonetheless, the United States continued to stockpile and develop biological weapons into the postwar era.

Matthew Meselson, a biologist at Harvard University, led a successful campaign against biological weapons development starting in the early 1960s. In 1969, the United States got rid of its offensive biological warfare program and played a crucial role in successfully negotiating an international treaty known as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

The treaty prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological agents and related delivery systems intended for hostile use. In explaining the U.S. decision, President Richard Nixon commented in 1970 that "we'll never use the damn germs, so what good is biological warfare as a deterrent? If somebody uses germs on us, we'll nuke 'em."

Compared with the United States, China came late to the game. The country had been on the receiving end of germ warfare, on the part of the Imperial Japanese Army's bio-warfare Unit 731 during World War II. As a result, China felt an imperative to build research facilities devoted to "defensive" biological warfare. In August 1951, Premier Zhou Enlai set up the Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS) to conduct research on bio defense against "wartime special weapons."

Since China did not possess nuclear weapons until the mid-1960s, it may indeed have explored developing biological weapons as a weapon of last resort or a strategic deterrent similar to nuclear weapons. But by 1982, China had acquired a largely invulnerable retaliatory nuclear arsenal. Two years later, China acceded to the BWC. The timing indicates that China, like the United States, found nuclear weapons to be the more credible and effective deterrent.

The mid-1980s saw a shift in China's national agenda toward economic development. Funding for China's bio defense research facilities dwindled, and they began developing products for civilian rather than military purposes. The AMMS became something of an analog to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. It developed a pan-anti-malaria drug called compound benflumentol and registered patents in more than 50 countries. During the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak, AMMS collaborated with Chinese pharmaceutical companies to develop two drugs for treating the deadly disease.

China and the United States are both parties to the BWC, but they still look upon each other with suspicion. Past U.S. government reports have alleged that China continued to possess "an offensive biological warfare capability based on technology developed prior to its accession to the BWC." According to a former official from the U.S. Department of Defense, by the 1990s China had manufactured and weaponized a wide variety of infectious microorganisms and toxins and had a wide range of delivery means available, including ballistic and cruise missiles.

Although these reports and accusations have never been substantiated by open-source evidence, official Chinese publications do suggest sustained and organized bio-warfare-related research activity. Official sources reported that in the 1990s, Chinese scientists used rare earth as a medium in which to swiftly cultivate brucellosis (traditionally considered a biological agent suitable for military use).

Many people in China also perceive the United States as a potential biological warfare threat. After the 2002-3 SARS outbreak, some Chinese military experts invoked a scenario of enemies spraying unknown SARS-like viruses on Beijing during airstrikes. Noting that the United States had developed antibiotic-resistant anthrax strains, a leading Chinese military medical expert implied that Washington had weaponized SARS and avian flu virus.

In 2001, the administration of President George W. Bush had rejected a proposed protocol to the BWC on the grounds that it was insufficient to its purpose. That refusal convinced some Chinese experts that the United Sates had renewed its interest in developing biological weapons. In 2007, Chinese military researchers published an article accusing the United States of "using new technologies to develop novel biological weapons agents" and claiming that it was "extremely likely" that anthrax spores in the 2001 attacks on Democratic senators' offices came from U.S. military labs. Such suspicions might explain why the Chinese government later tightened regulations on foreigners using human genetic material and made it more difficult to pass the material abroad.

The mutual distrust and misperceptions are emblematic of a classic security dilemma, in which actions taken by one state to improve its security lead to reactions from others, which make the original state less secure. Worse, bio defense programmes are so opaque, and provoke such moral antipathy, that they encourage "looking-glass presumptions": when one state is perceived to be pursuing biological weapons, its rivals will likely seek to acquire them as well. During World War II, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom all developed biological weapons because they thought Hitler's Germany would develop them.

Many in China and also in other countries apprehend the United States as a potential biological warfare threat.

In order to turn back erroneous perception, if any and reductivism the impairment to future relations and also to save mankind across the world, the two countries should consider expanding dialogue between the two countries to get rid of this unmanageable state of affairs.


The writer is an independent political observer who writes on politics, political and human-centered figures, current
and international affairs.


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