Coastal invasions have come a long way since the World War II beaches of Normandy and Okinawa. As such, these historical instances hardly set a practical expectation for a modern Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
According to experts like Ian Easton at the 2049 Research Institute or Piers Wood from the US Naval War College, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would likely be a phased assault of neighboring islands like the Penghus or Kinmen before a final push into Taiwan itself to avoid provoking an all-out US response. As a result, Taiwanese defense investments have become increasingly extensive as they’ve taken this into account, especially in the aforementioned islands of the strait.
Yet, Taiwan’s preparations could contribute to its own downfall by forcing President Xi Jinping to make a critical choice: face humiliation in defeat or employ uniquely cruel tactics to achieve victory. As such, bioweapons must be considered a key factor in Taiwan’s security dilemma, especially in light of China’s 2020 Biodefense Law that gave relevant government branches the directive to “strengthen research and development…in biodefense programs.” The Department of Defense, the Observer Research Foundation, and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis have all published documents indicating that China is still engaged in developing bioweapons such as ricin, anthrax, and botulinum.
Since a Chinese deployment of bioweapons against Taiwan could trigger another global pandemic or at the very least, shatter the norms against the use of such cruel weapons, the United States should take measures to ensure that China never reaches such a critical decision juncture. The Biden administration should support verification measures for the Biological Weapons Convention and invest in asymmetric defense technologies to defeat bioweapons, which would deter their development in the first place.
A COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS OF SORTS
The benefits of bioweapons in an amphibious warfare scenario are fairly self-evident. For starters, besieged islands are naturally quarantined by oceans and wartime international travel restrictions, thus mitigating (although not eliminating) the concern of endangering your own forces or accidentally triggering a global pandemic if used in the Taiwan Strait.
These weapons are also relatively cheap to make. They are impossible to trace with any meaningful certainty, granting deniability to the aggressors, as was done for decades by Biological Weapons Convention signatories like the Soviet Union and Iraq, to name a couple. For example, China could launch a bioweapon and then blame it on US military dual-use research programs, saying that Washington wanted to escalate the conflict or rally international support for Taiwan by defaming Beijing.
Bioweapons can also be mixed into conventional missile strikes, disguising their use. But this comes with its own risks. For example, second and third lines of defense, such as trained civilian resistance groups or medical bays and supply routes, could be indirectly attacked as unknowingly infected troops travel back from the frontlines spreading the disease among the islands, compounding the damage of just one successful biological strike.
China also faces some domestic risks to using biological weapons. Over the past several years, the Chinese people have been oppressed by stringent COVID regulations, leading to widespread riots and dissent. If their government was caught using bioweapons, even if the risk of infecting their own forces is lowered, this hypocrisy could inflame tensions to unprecedented proportions and have devastating domestic consequences.
The world cannot assume that the risks inherent to using bioweapons will deter China from using them, especially when faced with a shrinking set of options for solving the Taiwan issue.
Historically, the Chinese Communist Party has sold the story to its people (and its army) that the Taiwanese are simply Chinese people in need of liberation. Being ordered to use bioweapons against Taiwanese people — whom the People’s Liberation Army may view as their own people — could cripple the soldiers’ wills to fight. This happened before during the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. While the party’s orders to use lethal force on peaceful Chinese protesters were mostly obeyed, the Chinese Communist Party was shaken by the insubordination of foot soldiers, officers like colonels, and even high-ranking military officials, such as General Xu Qinxian, who disobeyed on the basis that they were attacking their own people. In fact, many soldiers at the time now regret their actions, and some of them are in high-level leadership positions today.
However, there are ways the Chinese government can mitigate these risks. Blowback can be insulated against by stockpiling treatments and equipping soldiers with personal protective equipment before, after, and during the attack. While the threat of domestic upheaval and military insubordination is a major political cost to this approach, China could lessen the risk by using nonlethal bioweapons, which are easier to disguise as natural pandemics by adding another layer of deniability — and the Chinese Communist Party to appear less cruel if discovered.
Nonlethal bioweapons are a virus, bacteria, or another biological agent that has been engineered to incapacitate opponents without killing them, such as by making them excessively nauseous or delirious. These can be engineered to have all the characteristics of a lethal bioweapon without actually killing anyone and can still effectively cripple a fighting force, making invasion less costly for China. After all, it’s difficult for enemy soldiers to fight if they’re too dizzy to stand or vomiting uncontrollably.
A RISKY DETERRENT
The world cannot assume that the risks inherent to using bioweapons will deter China from using them, especially when faced with a shrinking set of options for solving the Taiwan issue. The United States should, therefore, take measures to increase these risks for China, thus allowing Taiwan to continue its defense investments while still deterring China’s use of disease as a weapon. Obviously, preventing a war in the first place is the most desirable. But that may not be entirely realistic if China is committed enough to taking Taiwan and no longer sees any peaceful means to that end. As such, there are many means by which the United States can deter China from using bioweapons should a war break out.
First, it can start by increasing transparency around its own dual-use disease research programs, thereby lowering the potential of China using the United States as a scapegoat for its biological attacks. Additional measures, such as investing in microbial forensics to better identify a culprit or anchoring adherence to the Biological Weapons Convention through well-defined secondary sanctions penalties for failure to comply, could also be useful. Perhaps the United States’ best chance of protecting Taiwan from a Chinese bioweapons attack is in preemptive measures against developing such weapons via the Biological Weapons Convention.
The Biological Weapons Convention is like the Geneva Convention but for bioweapons. Those states who sign it do so as a commitment to eschew bioweapons and agree to certain consequences for violation. It was entered into force in 1975 and has been signed by 183 countries, including China and Russia. But as it stands, the convention lacks verifications, meaning there is no way to actually ascertain a country’s compliance with the convention, making enforcement difficult.
The United States has blocked attempts to modify the Biological Weapons Convention, such as measures to sample and identify random supplies from research facilities suggested by the UN’s verification research team, the Ad Hoc Group, in 2001. The convention is hard to verify since bioweapons can be made using everyday instruments like incubators in vaccine manufacturing facilities or fermenters in breweries. Verification measures can also be invasive, threatening a country’s defense plan or a company’s proprietary stock.
Rather than continuing to impede such improvements, the Biden administration should recommit to studying and incorporating verifications into the Biological Weapons Convention, as not every analysis has been exhaustive. For example, standardizing research documentation in ways that make bioweapons construction more susceptible to discovery or requiring industries to place and calibrate sensors in products that could be used to grow bioweapons (like the aforementioned breweries) are all verification measures never known to have been tabled.
After decades of silence, there has actually been some suggestion of revisiting verifications in the Biden administration, such as in the US National Statement at the ninth Biological Weapons Convention conference. For example, the United States expressed support for an expert working group to strengthen biosafety and biosecurity worldwide.
All in all, if the United States wishes to continue fortifying Taiwan, it must do so carefully while simultaneously taking asymmetric measures to disincentivize China from using bioweapons as a way to circumvent conventional defense preparations.
Garrett Ehinger holds a bachelors in Biomedical Science with a minor in Mandarin Chinese. He was the Director of the China Lab at Brigham Young University in Idaho, director of a biodefense research team, and has studied Chinese culture and language for over a decade.