US President Joe Biden has directed an intensive study of the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. In the process of that review, the intelligence community also should look at the larger question: Did China take advantage of the pandemic’s ravaging spread as a limited form of biological warfare against its perceived adversaries?
The notion, as unthinkable as it might seem, is no longer as implausible or paranoid as it was earlier portrayed. Mounting questions and evidence have cast doubt on the likelihood that the deadly pathogen sprang naturally from an animal to human.
Governments outside China are focusing attention on the possibility that the virus emerged from an accidental release at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That should be only the beginning of the inquiry.
New questions are being raised because of a history of lax security practices at the laboratory and new reports of illness among personnel there prior to reported official COVID-19 cases.
But even an outbreak caused by animal-to-human transmission would not have precluded Beijing opportunistically allowing the pathogen to spread to the rest of the world. As author Gordon Chang (章家敦) put it: “China’s leader knew (or should have known) that the result of his actions would be the transmission of disease beyond his borders.”
It was clear at the time that the virus’ arrival in late 2019 just happened to coincide with remarkable turnarounds in several adverse developments for the communist regime.
The unprecedented trade war of former president Donald Trump’s administration had delivered a significant hit to China’s economy in 2019, and this was only the result of phase 1 of the confrontation. Trump reportedly planned a gradual escalation of trade pressure until China would be forced to make structural changes in its economic system.
Those, in turn, could have resulted inevitably in corresponding political reforms, a potential death knell for China’s communist system.
Beijing saw the Trump administration’s trade threat for what it was — an existential challenge and a veritable declaration of war from the US, after decades of China waging an unanswered, new cold war against the West.
Beijing could not win the trade competition while Trump was seriously committed to upping the ante as necessary to achieve his stated objective of economic rebalancing. With last year’s election looming, he repeatedly gloated about how well the US economy was doing in contrast to China’s, often hastening to add that it was not his intent to hurt Chinese prosperity, just to even the bilateral playing field.
Nor did Trump ever publicly discuss the political ramifications of economic restructuring for China — on the contrary, he expressed admiration for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) hold on power.
Xi certainly knew the domestic political stakes of economic concessions to Washington, so he and his colleagues undoubtedly saw US motives as being different from Trump’s assurances.
Having spent decades accusing the West of “containment,” “encirclement” and “keeping China down,” they now confronted a substantive basis for such accusations — against the party-state, rather than the Chinese people.
Beijing’s options for a response were limited. Converting the confrontation into an actual shooting war would have been catastrophic for China, destroying all that its leaders had been building for 70 years.
Enter the coronavirus, which Chinese authorities originally called the “Wuhan virus” and “Wuhan pneumonia.” The most innocent explanation for its arrival is that this was simply a remarkably serendipitous event for China. Western countries were clearly unprepared, despite the experience of previous deadly China-origin outbreaks. Western economies suffered immediate and drastic dislocation throughout last year into this year.
The wound to the US economy blocked Trump’s advantage and alleviated the immediate economic threat to China. The longer-term danger was deferred indefinitely, perhaps permanently. The dreaded domestic political reforms suddenly receded from the horizon; China’s immediate US problem was once again tractable.
A second Trump term almost certainly would have meant the revival of what Beijing clearly saw as an anti-China agenda.
By contrast, the expected return of a foreign policy similar to those of former US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama under Biden promised a much more inviting scenario, potentially reversing Trump’s tougher approach. Beijing made clear its preference for the Biden-Kamala Harris ticket.
Biden’s adherence so far to the fundamentals of Trump’s policies has sorely disappointed — even angered — the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), particularly his strengthening of ties with allies and security partners, further forging a multinational resistance to China’s aggressive moves.
India and Taiwan, among other countries outside North America and Europe, share the same democratic values and are part of the ideological West.
Worse, from Beijing’s perspective, they each give the lie to China’s hollow protestations that its particular population is not suited to democratic governance.
Taiwan, the most persistent bone in the throat of the CCP, having thrown off an anti-communist dictatorship in the 1980s and 1990s, demonstrates a model of democracy that a Chinese culture can adopt for self-government and the rule of law as readily as any other society.
India, the world’s largest democracy and the second-most populous nation, disproves Beijing’s lame excuse that a nation with a massive population requires authoritarianism to survive and thrive. Demographic trends show that India’s population is destined to overtake China’s in the next two decades.
Taiwan in particular fared relatively well in coping with the pandemic, leading to some invidious comparisons with China, even as Taiwan and India deepened their security relations with Washington.
India extended its cooperation as part of the Quad with Australia, Japan and the US, and Taiwan’s security and
diplomatic interaction with Washington intensified under Trump and so far has expanded with Biden.
Almost as a parallel to the US and European experience, India and Taiwan also suffered pandemic eruptions in recent weeks; India’s has been far more extensive and devastating.
Whether these events are simply serendipity working to Beijing’s advantage, or something far more sinister connected to the original coronavirus outbreak, might be revealed in the Biden-ordered intelligence review. It should not shy away from an honest assessment, even if it means accusing Beijing of something as extreme as biological warfare.
If that should prove to be the case, there are non-kinetic responses available to Washington and the international community.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense, and is a fellow of the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the Global Taiwan Institute’s advisory committee.
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