Sergio Restelli
Sergio Restelli

China and Russia: A new bioweapons tango

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information office

The Chinese dragon and the Russian bear are now developing a new bioweapons alliance to corner the US eagle as a part of a global strategy to counter the hegemony of the only super-power.

China and Russia, developing a deeper axis to leverage their joint muscle and military power in Asia, from Afghanistan to the Far East, are simultaneously using their shared rivalry with the United States to corner the lone super power on the issue of biological weapons.

If the Trump years during the COVID-19 pandemic saw Washington accuse Beijing of spreading the virus worldwide, the two have managed to reverse roles. China, with Russia in tow, are demanding that the US abide by a United Nations convention on biological weapons.

Their joint statement says that “in light of rapid advances in the field of science and technology with dual-use capabilities, the risk of biological agents being used as weapons has increased”. The statement wants to limit and keep under check US capabilities in this field.

The statement by the foreign ministers came last week at a discussion of the arms control committee of the UN’s Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction also known as the Bio-Weapons Convention (BWC).

The BWC is the only international arms agreement that does not have an inspection mechanism. It commits parties not to develop, stockpile or use biological weapons and to promote the peaceful use of biology and technology.

This is the first time that China and Russia have sought to jointly challenge the United States on the biological weapons issue as both partners ramp up their military cooperation.

The statement reads: “In this context [China and Russia] would like to call for attention that the United States’ and its allies’ overseas military biological activities (over 200 US biological laboratories are deployed outside its national territory, which function in an opaque and non-transparent manner) cause serious concerns and questions among the international community over its compliance with the BWC.”

China’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, Geng Shuang, calls for the US to agree to a legally binding protocol to the BWC even as both countries assert that they “share the view that such activities pose serious risks for the national security of [Russia and China], and are detrimental to the security of relevant region”.

Well aware that in the past the United States has been quite sensitive to biological weapons charges, China and Russia proposed that under a monitoring mechanism, there should be “mobile biomedical teams” to investigate use of biological weapons and “help combat epidemics of various origins”.

In 2001, under the presidency of George W. Bush, the US rejected adding a draft inspection protocol to the BWC. This, in spite of the fact that the same year several letters carrying anthrax were sent to American senators and journalists, killing five people. It was in 2001, the same year as 9/11.

A media report recalled: “At the time of the rejection, Donald Mahley, the US government’s then special negotiator for chemical and biological arms control issues said the draft protocol ‘will not enhance our confidence in compliance and will do little to deter those countries seeking to develop biological weapons’. There were also concerns that declarations about biodefence facilities and activities would pose national security risks.”

The latest confrontation between the Sino-Russian axis and the US occurs in the back drop of NATO leaders a few months ago declaring that China presented a global security risk and that Russia’s actions constituted a “threat” to Euro-Atlantic security. The Americans believe China plans to double the number of nuclear warheads it has in the next decade.

The last couple of years have seen the United States trying to drive a wedge between China and Russia on the presumption that Russia may not like being the junior partner in a relationship with China. However, the strategy has not worked for the simple reason that the relationship  between China and Russia is not hierarchical. There is no deference of either country to the other.

Their current relations are a far cry from the 1950s and 1960s when their ties sank to their lowest over how both China and the then Soviet Union differed on contentious matters like strategies for India and Taiwan.  Both sides are ideologically poles apart today and they politely agree to disagree. They have been careful to see that a third party does not exploit their differences. There is no “big brother” in the relationship.

In an article published in 2019 in the Asia Europe Journal, academics from China’s Shandong University, Serafettin Yilmaz and Liu Changming, came up with a remarkable theory about the two: “…China-Russia strategic partnership stands at the centre of the BRI’s expansion in Eurasia. Economically, the cooperation aims to boost development in the region by spurring infrastructure, connectivity, and innovation. Politically, it seeks to create a more institutionalized and harmonious regional existence via an economy-driven approach to security to address such threats as extremism, separatism, and terrorism.”

Neither Vladimir Putin nor Xi Jinping see each other as a threat in their domestic power struggles. Both countries coordinate their policies and manage differences. China has not forced Russia to tow its line on the Sino-Indian border dispute or the South China Sea standoff. Russia did not have to placate China before supplying modern weapons to Vietnam.

Russian fears of millions of Chinese migrants pouring into Siberia have abated. Both countries have no territorial disputes as of date. Their border, once the most militarised, is demilitarised and demarcated. A massive gas pipeline connects their border.

The two countries have strengthened their defence cooperation. They regularly hold joint military exercises in the Baltic Sea and the South China Sea, sharing command-and-control information. In the period between 2014 and 2018, about 70 per cent of China’s arms exports were from Russia. This included the highly complex air defence systems and combat aircraft. In 2019, President Putin said his country would assist in China’s development of a ballistic missile early warning system.

A national security platform, War On The Rocks, wrote in 2020: “…a sustained US hardline approach against both Russia and China creates common cause between them. US sanctions have pushed the two countries together…The US military presence on both states’ peripheries also fosters a shared threat perception. Neither country views US military dominance of their respective regions as acceptable, and both oppose US weapons systems deployments in their regions and are developing deterrent capabilities. The shared intent to counter US capabilities and influence is evident everywhere, from joint air patrols that aggravate the United States and its allies, to Russia’s sales of S-400 air defence systems to China to counter US airpower in the Pacific.”

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
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