The People’s Republic of China (PRC) makes no secret of its ambitions to be the strongest power in Asia and to “reclaim its historic place” in world affairs. This includes, among other things, forcibly absorbing Taiwan (the Nationalist Republic of China), annexing Japan’s Ryukyu Islands based on ancient claims, and above all, expelling American military and political influence from East Asia. China’s expansionist “Belt and Road Initiative,” (BRI) which aims at achieving these goals, is based on China’s steadily growing naval power and the assumption that the West will do nothing. China’s maritime BRI eerily resembles imperial Japan’s “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” of the 1930s – also based primarily on expansionist Japan’s naval power and the assumption that the West would rollover.
I find it interesting that, coronavirus or no coronavirus, China’s defense industries are humming and the People’s Navy is still acting as the bully on the Asian block, not only against Taiwan, but threatening the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, and even Vietnam. China is doing its best to isolate arch-rival India and has established a presence in the Central Pacific. Not least, while America’s attention is diverted into curbing the economic and health problems resulting from COVID-19 and coping with our current wave of demonstrations, violent Chinese Communist repression in Hong Kong, harsh concentration camps for China’s Uyghur minority, and militarist expansion continue unchecked.
The truth about COVID-19 may never be known. The debate in western circles over the virus’s origin tends to give the PRC government the benefit of the doubt. While harboring lingering doubts that the virus originated in certain bats sold in a Wuhan “wet market” – most western observers nevertheless accept the Chinese position that the virus “escaped” from the “wet market” and the resulting global pandemic was a “tragic mistake.” Even so, an unanswered question remains why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) went to considerable lengths to muzzle scientists such as Dr. Li Wenliang and declines to invite international virologists to freely tour the “wet market” and the nearby P-4 biological research facility nominally run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
So, officially we must accept the view that this was all a “tragic mistake.”
But let us now explore other, equally plausible possibilities. We have seen that China is expansionist – pursuing a kind of Chinese version of “Lebensraum.” The policymakers in Beijing surely have studied their national goals in light of the means available to them.
China has a number of assets available to achieve the aims of its Belt and Road Initiative. The rapidly expanding Chinese Navy – now augmented by a Marine Corps – is certainly one asset. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the strongest in Asia and quite capable of operating outside China – certainly in Korea and Southeast Asia – and, with naval support, possibly further afield. Pentagon and CIA analysts are well aware of Chinese nuclear and missile capabilities.
There is one problem that limits the utility of any of these forces – including nuclear weapons. That is the certainty of American response in kind. China is well aware that the United States has, for the moment, anyway – naval and air superiority, even in Asian waters, and could even meet a nuclear threat.
Moreover, the use of conventional or nuclear weapons would be highly destructive not only to lives but also to valuable economic property. A central precept of Chinese strategy, dating to 5th century B.C. strategist Sun Tzu, holds: “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To conquer without fighting is the acme of skill.”
Now we must consider the “tragic mistake” of the COVID-19 outbreak in a new context. Unlike nuclear or chemical weapons of mass destruction, a biological weapon has the advantage of destroying forces without destroying assets. Moreover, a biological agent – a pathogen – is hard to detect and, as Americans have learned since March, very hard to counter. From the perspective of a PLA war planner in Zhongnanhai, it really doesn’t matter whether the COVID-19 outbreak was an accident or was perhaps a clever “test run” by the PLA to see what the United States would do. America failed miserably. The war planner would take due note of America’s unpreparedness and use that vulnerability to China’s military and political advantage.
We Americans have now had a taste of what COVID-19 could do to open societies such as ours and those of our allies. COVID-19 put a billion-dollar U.S. aircraft carrier out of action. It put a multi-trillion dollar economy out of gear. An “escaped” virus possibly killed up to 100,000 Americans and caused millions to lose their jobs. A “tragic accident” threatened to overtax hospitals, first responders, physicians, and nurses. Let us now imagine the impact of carefully targeted biological warfare (BW) on Western industries and military forces.
Let us now suppose that the Chinese Communist Party leadership has decided the time is ripe to make good on its decades-long threat to “liberate” Taiwan. What better way than to release a biological agent in Taipei, Kaohsiung, and perhaps other centers. But beyond that, Beijing would ensure that the U.S. Seventh Fleet could not interfere in a People’s Navy landing. How? By spreading BW agents at key U.S. naval bases in the Pacific. With hundreds, perhaps thousands of sailors sick and hospitalized, and ships also covered in pathogens, an American naval response – at least in a timely fashion – would be impossible.
Moreover, if Chinese aims were broader than merely conquering Taiwan, consider how easy it would be to immobilize significant portions of the American mainland. It should come as no surprise that where PRC economic interests are found in the United States, COVID-19 infections followed. A case in point is the PRC-owned meat processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which was closed down when a high percentage of its workers contracted COVID-19.
BW pathogens could be spread near large military bases and key ports such as Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego on the West Coast, and Houston, Charleston, and Norfolk on the Atlantic and Gulf Coast.
We must ask ourselves whether, having just experienced a “tragic mistake” with the spread of the coronavirus, we are now better prepared for a BW attack – or even another “tragic mistake” – than we were for COVID-19?
The use of a pathogen, albeit accidental, has now been shown effective in dislocating America’s economy and even its military forces. Its strategic and tactical effectiveness has been established beyond doubt.
Hopefully, that lesson has been learned not only in Beijing but in Washington, D.C.