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EFSAS Commentary

The Dragon persists with spewing toxicity into South Asia


China in recent weeks appears to have stepped up efforts to deepen its engagement with countries in South Asia. Such Chinese outreach in the region could be aimed at bolstering its defensive position in anticipation of an uptick in the United States (US)-led international blowback against China. The smaller and more economically vulnerable countries of South Asia could present to China as suitable targets to help it stack up the number of international voices that support it, or at least do not oppose it, in the event of a dogfight or a tug of war breaking out. It could equally be driven by India’s firm positioning on the border issue with China, and its robust military, economic and diplomatic response to the Chinese aggression in the Galwan valley last month. Whatever the Chinese motivation may be, that the results desired by it are entirely self-serving is but obvious. It seems to matter little to China that its recent actions and promises of mirage-like benefits to embattled countries in South Asia are inducting considerable toxicity and potential instability to the equation in an already fragile region.

Australia-based investigative journalist Anthony Klan, in a 23 July expose in The Klaxon titled ‘China's Wuhan lab operating covert operations in Pakistan, creating anthrax-like pathogens’ underscored how literally toxic China had become for South Asia. The expose revealed that China and Pakistan had entered a secret three-year deal to expand potential bio-warfare capabilities, including running several research projects related to the deadly agent anthrax. The deal was entered into by China’s now infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology with the Pakistan military’s Defense Science and Technology Organization (DESTO). The vaguely titled program ‘Collaboration for Emerging Infectious Diseases and Studies on Biological Control of Vector Transmitting Diseases’ is entirely funded by China, with the Wuhan Institute of Virology lending “all financial, material and scientific support for the project”. 

The expose pointed out that the project involved China testing biological agents outside its borders in an apparent bid to minimize the “risk of drawing condemnation from the international community”. Citing senior intelligence sources, Klan informed that “DESTO has been engaged in various dual-use research projects related to anthrax under a covert biological weapons program”, and that the secret China-Pakistan project had already conducted “successful soil sampling tests” to isolate Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT), which has a striking similarity to Bacillus Anthracis, or anthrax. Pakistan had been provided with the reagents for Bacillus Thuringiensis by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was also providing “extensive training on manipulation of pathogens and bio-informatics” to Pakistani scientists “to help Pakistan develop its own virus collection database. This could help Pakistan enhance its capability of genetic identification of viruses, access to dangerous microorganisms, and use of genomic tools for research”. Klan further wrote, “Considering the striking similarity between BT and Bacillus Anthracis, a classified bio-warfare agent, (Pakistan’s) improved know-how in handling the bacteria could enrich a potential offensive biological program”.

Underlining that the covert China – Pakistan project was “detached from supervision of civilian universities or government health departments in Pakistan” and was structured so as to allow unspecified future operations, Klan further wrote that the agreement “clearly outlines that the cooperation is not necessarily limited to stated objectives” and that “new thematic research can be added by either party”. The expose also highlighted the bio-safety issues that arise on account of Pakistan conducting tests on “class-4” microorganisms in laboratories that were not equipped to handle bio-safety level-4 diseases. Similar safety concerns were expressed about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, with the expose alleging that despite its claims of being class-4 compliant, the laboratories there were not equipped to handle class-4 diseases. These factors combined presented an ominous and highly volatile picture of China – Pakistan cooperation in biological weapons.

Interestingly, the expose suggested that western intelligence agencies believe that China had used the India bogey with Pakistan while selling it the project. From China’s perspective, the COVID-19 disaster meant that it could now ill afford to risk drawing further adverse attention to itself through another biological catastrophe potentially sprouting from its territory. China’s keen interest in the project, the expose stressed, was due to its desire “to conduct potentially dangerous experiments on foreign soil, without subjecting its own land and people to risk”. It mattered little to Beijing that Pakistan, through participating in the project, stood the real risk of being designated “a destination for hazardous bio chemical research”. What was pertinent for China was that through involving Pakistan, it was ensuring that it would be “evading use of its own territory for such activities”.

Both China and Pakistan reacted promptly and vociferously to Klan’s expose. The Chinese Embassy in Pakistan in a tweet denounced the expose as “fabricated”, and described it as “totally irresponsible, vicious-intentioned to smear China and Sino-Pak relations”. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry issued a statement in which it described Klan’s report as “a politically motivated and fake story”.

The Chinese and Pakistani rejection of Klan’s well-researched assertions does not, in reality, mean much. If the official Chinese version were to be believed, China had absolutely nothing to do with the COVID-19 outbreak, nor was it at all guilty of negligence and deceit in its spread. Despite the authoritarian character of its regime, its rampant aggression against most of its neighbours, its egregious human rights violations internally, its support to suspect entities and causes worldwide, and its propensity to repeatedly violate the rules of engagement of the international order, if the official Chinese account were true China would count itself as a responsible member of the international community. It is another matter that such Chinese contentions do not have many takers.

Pakistan has historically been as, if not more, deceitful in the conduct of its relations as China has. Just like China, if the Pakistani authorities were to be believed then the country has for a long time now overturned its policy of supporting terrorist groups against Afghanistan and India. The latter two countries nonetheless continue to bear the brunt of repeated terrorist attacks launched from well within Pakistani territory. Similarly, at the turn of the century Pakistan had claimed for several years to be a close partner of the US in its war against terror and had received substantial financial and other rewards for it. A core objective of the war against terror was to find Osama Bin Laden and capture or kill him. As it later became known, Pakistan had been sheltering Osama Bin Laden all along while simultaneously pretending to help the US find him. Further, Pakistan also bases it claim to a seat in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) export control regime on what it describes as a scrupulous adherence to the international nuclear order. That its leading nuclear scientist A.Q Khan for years ran the most extensive nuclear proliferation network that the world has ever seen never finds mention in Pakistani statements.

Award-winning US investigative reporter Sara Carter in an article on 29 July, well after the Chinese and Pakistani rejection of Klan’s expose, powerfully articulated the dangers that the expose had unraveled. She wrote, “Imagine what happens if we ignore the possible biowarfare deal between China and Pakistan. Imagine the threat that a relationship like this could have on the world and the implications for the future. I’ve also covered numerous intelligence matters in Pakistan, and know there have been concerns among U.S. intelligence officials regarding the nation’s very modern bio-level laboratories, which are suspected of conducting ‘covert experiments’ and could potentially pose a national security threat in the future”.

The China – Pakistan bio-warfare deal will have serious implications for South Asia. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, all too close, the destructive power that biological agents possess. Pakistan has often in its history gone through periods during which stability has been at a premium. The fear of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands has repeatedly been expressed. Biological weapons may be even easier for terrorists to whisk away and use to devastating effect. Also, the Pakistani military establishment’s bluff of nuclear weapons has been called by India on a few occasions in the past few years. Conventionally weaker than India and with its nuclear option no longer as abrasively on the table as it used to be, biological warfare may well develop into the future unconventional option of the Pakistan military’s choosing. If it does, it could spell doom for the whole of the densely populated and closely interconnected South Asian region, and even beyond.

Beyond the deal with Pakistan, China sought to expand its outreach in South Asia by hosting the first ever virtual meeting of the foreign ministers of China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal on 27 July. The agenda included steps to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and prevent its politicization, to boost economic recovery, and to resume infrastructure projects in the region under the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). At the meeting, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested that under the principle of anti-pandemic cooperation the four countries open up “fast channels” and “green channels” for personnel and logistics as soon as possible. As part of post-pandemic recovery and economic development, Wang called on the other countries to firmly promote the joint construction of the BRI and the resumption of key cooperation projects.

Beyond the aberration that India did not figure in a meeting of some regional countries with China, there was nothing ostensibly wrong with the holding of such a meeting. The reality, however, was that the meeting was a classic example of an opportunistic China looking to ensnare two highly vulnerable and underdeveloped countries into its debt trap diplomacy. The Afghan government has been left highly confused and disoriented by its attempts to make sense of, and implement, an agreement with the Taliban that it had no role in drawing up. Intra-Afghan talks are not making much headway, rendering the position of the Afghan government tenuous. The US escape from Afghanistan is, meanwhile, likely to impact the quantum of funding that the US has been providing to the war ravaged country. Instability and economic distress together have created suitable conditions for China to prey upon in Afghanistan. How deep in debt the Afghan people will come out on the other side of their tryst with modern day Chinese economic imperialism remains to be seen.

Nepal’s case is equally complex. A land-locked country like Afghanistan, Nepal is heavily dependent on India in virtually every sphere. Being a tiny country lying between two massive neighbours, India and China, some of Nepal’s rulers had historically sought to invoke each of these neighbours to counterbalance each other. While ties with China were developed to varying degrees by successive Nepalese governments, the reality that China could never really and practically replace India in Nepal was never lost sight of. Geography in the form of the highest mountain range in the world, the mighty Himalayas, meant that the logistics of carrying out overland trade and commerce with China would remain a serious challenge.

Nepal today has a maverick Prime Minister in K.P Sharma Oli, a communist, who seems hell bent on consigning the conventional wisdom of earlier Nepalese leaders to the dustbin. He is receiving the full backing of China in the process, even as other senior leaders of his political party are strongly opposed to Oli’s blindly anti-India line. There is a clear recognition among right-thinking Nepalis that Oli’s misplaced bravado will lead Nepal right into the vice-like Chinese trap of debt.

Most Nepalis are also acutely aware that it is they, the common people, who will have to pay the price for their leader pushing India’s patience over the tipping point. Earlier blockades of Nepal’s designated border trading points to India had resulted in acute shortages of essential commodities throughout Nepal, and caused great hardship to the people. By encouraging Oli to invite trouble through taunting and spurning India, China, in pursuit of its own narrow self-interests, is only contributing towards the weakening and splintering of Nepal’s close historical ties with India. For Nepal, that is without doubt its most critical relationship, the scope and depth of which China can never hope to replicate. A serious snap in India-Nepal relations, the direction in which the China-enamored Oli appears myopically to be steering the narrative, could have severe repercussions for the people of Nepal.

Nepal’s case demonstrates how the toxicity that China is bringing into South Asia is not limited purely to the biological or the chemical variety.