Deepening the Cut: How China’s Genetic Warfare is Affecting International Relations

By: Kathryn Koonz
Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes

Warfare is a rapidly changing front, evolving as technology grows. It has seen many advancements throughout history, ranging from ground combat, the use of long-range firearms, the introduction of airpower, and the development of long-range missiles. Most weapons, when designed and constructed, aim to limit daily human activity and infiltrates the state economic and governmental elements. The effect of a modern bioweapon containing a deadly disease is enough to eradicate security measures and disarm entire regions. However, what would happen if scientists were able to meld technology with naturally occurring biological agents and tweak a granular detail in a human’s molecular composition to prevent disease?

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) is a gene-editing technology that has demonstrated the capability to perform molecular modification. CRISPR-Cas9 acts as a pair of genetic scissors, coded to enter a specific area of an organism’s deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and adds, removes, or changes genes. When different genes are present, an organism’s traits can express altered reactions to the environment. This may appear to be a useful apparatus: something to assist in limb growth, prevent HIV, increase brain development, or slow tumor growth. However, while researchers look at these ideas, a genetic ‘ gorilla looms in the background. Gene editing of humans and animals could take place to improve physical and mental performance, yet it poses immense risks to human and international security. This research pursues increased resistance to certain diseases, while at the same time, edits to genes contained in harmful viruses could make them more dangerous. With these developments, human and state security are called into question, as is the condition of international relations.

Historical Context of Biological Warfare

Biological warfare itself is not a new concept. As early as 1155, weaponized poisons killed enemies and civilians. The development of biological weapons took a new path in World War I from the German Army. Attacks at this point were considered small-scale, with the use of smallpox and glanders to infect people and animals. Undetectable by the naked eye and deadly, these weapons sparked a security dilemma between countries and created a race to develop and test biological weapons. As there were no peace treaties or disarmament efforts in effect—World War I ended prior to the 1925 United Nations Conference prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in war—countries were left unchecked to begin experiments. In 1939, Japan acquired a strain of yellow fever virus from the Rockefeller Institute and used it as a weapon against China. Though this example of biological warfare was singular to WWII, it still poses a significant stressor to international relations between Japan and China. The lasting effect weighs heavily on international relations with Eastern nations today as trade deals and information exchange tests the trust between participating countries.

The US started its development of biological weapons around 1941 to counter Japanese efforts. Domestic research studied the effects of different microbes on volunteers, animals, and unsuspecting civilians. Studies took place in crowded areas, like subway stations in New York City and boats off the coasts of Virginia and San Francisco. Researchers tested non-lethal viruses at approximately 200 different sites where people commonly traveled. Though these kinds of tests violate today’s Institutional Review Board processes, no such rules or oversight of research existed during World War II and the post-war period.

This testing and development make biological warfare highly questionable, considering its relation to human security and history. There is a thin line delineating between testing and abuse. Without a well-defined boundary between the two, the effects of biological weapons include mass deaths, sickness, and decreases in resources to threatened populations. This seemingly invisible armament poses a significant threat as most responses are reactive when it comes to combating diseases or other biological events. Any country releasing a biological weapon will automatically have an advantage over the target population.

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Perceptions labeling biological weapons as the poor man’s nuclear bomb and protests against the Vietnam War led the Nixon Administration to end the biological warfare development program in 1969. Efforts turned to the American nuclear arsenal rather than weaponizing botulinum toxin and Staphylococcus enterotoxin B. American efforts to end biological research led to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) of 1972 which revamped the protocols of the 1925 Geneva ruling on biological and chemical weapons. Under the BTWC, participating states must provide annual reports detailing activities relating to biological research, development, laboratory and research centers, and vaccine production. A final resolution, adopted in 2006, established an Implemental Support Unit to provide states assistance in participation and adherence to the BTWC. The intent behind the BTWC was to create greater transparency concerning biological developments.

Unsurprisingly, the Soviet Union began its own biological trials after signing the BTWC with the installment of their program Biopreparat in 1970. Knowing the nature of Biopreparat was in violation of the BTWC, the program was hidden behind a façade of civilian biotechnology and pharmaceutical developments located in biological weapons facilities formerly used by the Ministry of Defense and new facilities dispersed in closed cities across the Soviet Union. From the 1970s onward, the Soviet Union collected anthrax, smallpox, plague, and fever viruses to produce drug-resistant strains. From its inception to its 1989 public exposure, defectors from the program provided staggering amounts of information regarding Russian activities and the growing bioweapon arsenal. However, the true extent of Biopreparat far surpassed the expectations of Western intelligence agencies when revelations came to light after the collapse of the USSR.

Contemporary Biological Warfare Concerns

Biological warfare has centered on viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens to disrupt the neuropathways of humans and animals. However, the editing of such organisms down to a specific gene has opened a new realm of possibilities. Recent advances in technology and an expansion of access to these technologies has shifted biological warfare towards a new direction with alarming implications.

Chinese research and experimentation with gene-editing software place them at the forefront of biological knowledge and technology development. As one of the cheapest gene editing technologies, CRISPR-Cas9 is an easy tool to utilize across a myriad of experiments and simplifies integration into studies of human capability. The technology allows an individual an easy path to reconstruct a pathogen or other deadly biological component (e.g., Spanish Flu or Ebola viruses). The tools and techniques are relatively easy to obtain, though Chinese mastery of the method has quickly surpassed that of other nations.

In their “Thirteenth Five-Year Plan” released in 2016, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) outlined the importance of civilian-military fusion with genetic research at the forefront of that symbiotic relationship. This relationship marked an immense step for China’s biological development, with scientists advancing research in human-performance enhancement. This access gained by China and the PLA is worrisome as these same scientists now have the liberty to extend beyond current external factors and advance inwards to the biological composition of an organism. The capabilities of CRISPR-Cas9 have tremendous potential for Chinese military deterrence, which would also affect international relations with countries all over the globe, possibly triggering a second arms race towards biological weapons.

More troublesome are China’s recent developmental expansions beyond their own borders. The National Genebank used to collect and maintain the most extensive library of human genes in the world has been identified as an internal security tool and is utilized to develop China’s resources. China maintains partnerships with companies and universities all over the world—including the US, specifically the University of California – Davis and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—and have given China access to an unfathomable amount of information. This amassed data threatens both human and state security because as more information is collected, the resources China can tap into increase. As Eric Croddy argues in The Nonproliferation Review, China sees the US as a hegemonic power, using that power to keep other countries at a disadvantage, even in such areas considering bio-warfare. As a result, the two countries have remained tense concerning diplomatic and militaristic matters. Access to information like this exceeds what China has previously sought: binary personal identifying information. Never have they requested physical, living information, to include blood samples, facial scans, and fingerprints.

With China’s drive to obtain biological dominance, much like countries today strive for land, air, sea, and space superiority, it becomes imperative the US can respond effectively. This response must include resources to combat further human infection, economic decline, and decreases in defense capabilities.

China instituted new regulations to curb the abuse of this research. Gene editing became a part of fundamental human rights—including embryonic rights—as a last-minute addition to their 2019 protocol. On paper, the inclusion of gene editing with human and embryonic rights ensures an individuals’ physical well-being, dignity, freedom, and privacy. Additional drafted regulations require granted approval before any experiments are made on genomes. Other procedures calling for authorization from China’s National Health Commission include gene modification (beyond CRISPR), stem-cell technologies, mitochondrial replacement, and other proposals with unpredictable and possibly dangerous outcomes. Proposed punishments for disregarding this regulation and the respective national laws could include cancellation of future grant applications, blacklisting, and criminal charges. However, actual enforcement is questionable, as much of the research is state-sponsored by the PLA. Additionally, China has a rough past when it comes to human rights behaviors and treatment. Just as the West was unaware of the scope of the Soviet Biopreparat apparatus, it is nearly impossible to understand the full extent of Chinese biological development. Ambiguity is one of the most striking dilemmas of biowarfare development. When combining human factors with state and international elements, any assault to Chinese structures holds deadly consequences to foreign governments and economies.

China’s behavior towards external sources has thus far been amicable in its acquisition of genetic information from its international research partners. However, China has forced the collection of additional data from its indigenous Uighur population, creating a genetic version of Mao Zedong’s Hundred Flowers Movement. History demonstrates the extent of harm provoked by forced compliance; not only is the collection a violation of the individual, but it also attacks their community. As China continues in their unyielding pursuit of information power and dominance, the effect of it all remains largely unknown.

Biological warfare through the process of gene editing is no longer like chemical warfare. It is a newly developing field and contains immense possibilities where a biological, gene-edited weapon could pose a massive threat to vast numbers of people. However, what sets gene editing apart from any other weapon is that only the individual who physically used CRISPR to edit specific genes knows the extent those genes were affected; they are the sole keeper of the new genetic code. This makes it incredibly difficult for the targeted population to produce a viable vaccine to counter whatever effect the edit caused, posing a 21st century Enigma machine to countries around the world. That scenario calls to question the overarching security of nations around the world. Such “invisible battlefields” have the potential to become more and more prominent and add to the confusion of international conflict and the community’s position on gene editing. A country would lose all warfighting capabilities from exposure to an undetectable enemy before they could find a solution.

China is the leading developer and researcher of biowarfare, and their technologies are outstripping that of other global powers. Left unchecked, China poses an incredible threat to the current balance of power with newly developed genetic weapons. Technological advances have enabled China’s experiments to search out new, evolving ideas. Chinese researchers revealed that they edited the genes of some police dogs by removing the gene connected to myostatin production. Myostatin inhibits myogenesis, which is muscle growth and differentiation. Once the gene is modified or deleted, muscles reproduce and build at a much faster rate than typical, which is ideal for hunting, running, and high-intensity tasks. These dogs can then breed future litters that lack the same myostatin gene. Because dogs share similar anatomy to humans, the effects could be analyzed and applied to human gene modification. With this kind of technological advancement and a willingness to use it in a military context, geneticists could create a new breed of soldier.

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Dangers and Future Precedents in the 21st Century and Beyond

American relations with China remain complex. International efforts to control and reduce arms have not addressed Chinese developments in genetics. The National Biodefense Strategy fails to address US biological response capabilities, nor is there any mention of gene editing itself. There are also minimal resources for what steps America would take defensively or offensively should a genetic war take place. Given the pace of today’s biowarfare development, Chinese research has outpaced all counter-biological strategies.

While the issues of biological-genetic warfare present a new field of study, American defense officials have done little to prepare for a worst-case scenario. The US focus must temper Chinese efforts that currently expand technologies associated with biological warfare and gene editing. Rather than be reactionary, the US must engage with other countries and join efforts to enforce the standards of the BTWC.

The US is at a disadvantage and will remain so unless it is able and willing to match China’s development. The Nixon administration’s closure of biological research programs also led to the atrophy of any American ability to keep pace with advancements in genetic warfare. Disarmament treaties and research bans are unlikely to sway Chinese efforts to advance the field. Moreover, while biological warfare held little sway in twentieth century political and military reactions, today’s efforts require more careful attention in the implementation of these advances.

Greater international involvement is a must, especially from the BTWC signatory states. Without international resolve, gene-edited bioweapons will undoubtedly transition into multiple combat platforms. The US needs to garner the support of other countries to ensure China remains within an acceptable realm of genetic research. The international community must establish clear limits to gene editing and genetic modification. The rapid development of technology in today’s combat environments negatively affects international relations. If genetic engineering is introduced into humans and placed in combat, tensions will undoubtedly escalate. Technological advances are unavoidable in today’s national and global stages; thus, the US and other countries must respond effectively.

Kathryn Koonz is a Cadet and Research Assistant in the Department of Military and Strategic Studies at the United States Air Force Academy. She is majoring in Biology with a focus on international biological security. Her research was made possible by efforts from Maj Jahara ‘FRANKY’ Matisek (USAF, Ph.D.) and LCDR Wilson VornDick (USN, Reserve). Email: C21kathryn.koonz@afacademy.af.edu

The views expressed are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or any organization of the US government.

Feature Image: The Future for Gene Editing

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One thought on “Deepening the Cut: How China’s Genetic Warfare is Affecting International Relations

  • May 29, 2020 at 7:40 am
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    Trenchant piece by a USAFA cadet—when we add lack of transparency and a disinformation campaign to such weapons we can appreciate China’s broad threat to a narrow “when deterrence fails” approach to warfare.

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