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China’s biotechnology industry, like so many high-tech fields in China, has grown at an unbelievable clip in the last decade. In fact, China’s leadership has identified biotechnology as a “strategic emerging industry” that is integral both to Xi Jinping’s “Made in China 2025” program as well as the Chinese Communist Party’s 13th five-year plan.
Since I first wrote last year about the national security threat that China’s copious investments in biotechnology posed to the national security of the United States, a spate of articles in the Western press have appeared proving my fears were well-founded.
In February, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission published a groundbreaking report arguing that China’s biotechnology investments that are developed with the stated purpose of healing diseases “could be used for malicious purposes.” In other words, China views biotechnology the same way Iran looks at nuclear power: it is a dual-use technology.
Fact is, China would not pose a threat to the United States in biotech if American firms, scientists, and investors were not willingly doing business in China to develop biotech there. These Americans who are helping to build China’s biotech sector have little understanding of the national security threat Chinese biotechnology poses to Americans, as they are focused solely on making money and increasing their share of knowledge.
The People’s Liberation Army and Biotech Weapons
For decades, China’s leadership has conducted themselves according to the “Three Warfares” strategy. According to official Chinese People’s Liberation Army documents, the Three Warfares are designed to “Give full play to the combat function of political work: organize public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare; do a good job of dis-integrating [sic] the enemy’s activity; and prevent the enemy’s efforts to incite discord.”
Chinese strategists view warfare in holistic terms; physical combat is but one (small) component of the larger, non-kinetic, political objective of warfare. Therefore, China must continue its full-throated development of advanced technology and infrastructure to make China a truly great power that can compete with—and eventually defeat—the United States (without ever having to engage the American military).
China’s obsession with biotechnology plays heavily into this mindset. After all, biotechnology allows them to manipulate the basic building blocks of life. Yes, it may hold the keys to curing cancer but is curing cancer high on the list of priorities for a nation with what it considers to be a “surplus population”? This same technology can, however, be fashioned into a devastating—invisible—weapon that could cripple entire nations without ever deploying troops.
In terms of the threat posed to the United States, we’ve already seen examples of China employing unorthodox technology, such as lasers, used to blind American pilots taking off from an air base in Ethiopia. Further, sonic attacks are believed to be behind incidents in Cuba and China where a number of American diplomatic staff became ill. While these harassment tactics won’t by themselves defeat the United States, they are meant to reduce American capabilities throughout the world and confuse American leaders. Imagine what China could do with biotechnology.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report from earlier this year cautions American leaders that China could obtain and use information on health conditions “to conduct a targeted attack against diplomats, politicians, high-ranking federal officials, or military leaders to induce an allergic reaction or fatal injury.”
That’s just the start, though. The greater level of investment in Chinese biotech and the proliferation of talent there inevitably will allow for Chinese firms to conduct unethical, cutting-edge research into overt biotech weapons. A strategic gap in biotech is arising and will not be fully felt for another decade.
Once China has managed to absorb as much investment and knowledge from the West as it can, then it will have the ability to build out its biotech threat to the United States. The ability to manipulate the building blocks of life is a serious strategic advantage, and it seems that Beijing soon will possess those capabilities unless Washington takes drastic action to mitigate the threat now.
No Country For Ethical Men (and Women)
Recently, Bing Su, a Chinese geneticist working at the state-run Kunming Institute of Zoology, inserted the human MCPH1 gene into a monkey. This gene is believed to have played an important role in the evolution of human brains. In essence, the inclusion of the MCPH1 gene in the test monkey is believed to have made that monkey’s intelligence more human than primate.
Bing Su went on to tell the MIT Technology Review that his next experiment will involve merging the SRGAP2C gene, another ancient gene believed to have played a pivotal role in the development of human intelligence, as well as the FOXP2 gene, which scientists believe allowed for the development of human language, with that of a monkey. Bing Su insists that his experiments are done, in part, to help humanity learn how it evolved by tracking those evolutionary changes in real-time with these monkeys.
The totalitarian nature of China’s political system, coupled with its unquenchable thirst for greater capabilities and knowledge, means that the ethical hurdles facing biotech firms in the United States are not present in China. In fact, while the United States has made it increasingly difficult for biotech companies to conduct research with primates out of ethical concerns, China consistently has lowered the ethical bar. As a result, costs for primate-oriented research in China are much lower than they are in the United States. This has attracted greater levels of Western investment and interest from American universities which means that there is less investment in the United States, giving China a growing advantage over their American rivals in this key industry.
In the past five years, the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences has cloned primates at a research institution in Shanghai. Meanwhile, Chinese biotech firms (with assistance from American researchers and firms) have genetically engineered monkeys in ways that are said to be designed to help with research that could help with the curing of Parkinson’s, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and a spate of other horrific illnesses.
What happens, though, when these same methods are employed in ways that may develop weapons designed to be used against the United States?
Given the slapdash nature of Chinese biotech development, what’s to stop Chinese scientists from making a mistake that accidentally kills many people? After all, China’s rapid industrialization has led to horrific environmental damage to their country (which even Beijing acknowledges is a threat to China’s continued economic development).
So long as America cedes ground to China in biotechnology development, all of these concerns will become exacerbated over time.
Deregulate American Biotech
As is the case with every Chinese industry today, the West is now helping to build a new Chinese capability that will be used to threaten us in the future.
One reason that biotechnologists and investors are flocking to China from the United States is that China has a much lower barrier for entry into their market than we have here in the United States. This explains why America’s biotech sector has not grown relative to that of China’s in the last decade. There are too many government regulations that complicate the development of biotechnology in the United States. So long as these government barriers exist in biotech, China will remain the destination of choice for budding biotechnologists and investors.
Recently, I wrote a article advocating greater regulation on U.S. technology firms, such as Google, that seek to do business with China at the expense of U.S. national security. Yet, until the rise of Donald Trump, Google and the other Silicon Valley tech firms rose to prominence in a relatively regulation-free environment.
For example, Amazon, a firm that reported $11.2 billion in profits last year, has not paid federal income taxes for the past two years because of rules in the U.S. tax code that were designed to give American technology companies a competitive advantage. Now that the tech sector has achieved something approximating financial security, the industry needn’t remain as unregulated as it traditionally has been.
American biotechnology, however, has always been a tightly regulated industry, which explains why there has never been the kind of amazing innovative leaps in that industry that are comparable to those experienced by the tech sector over the last 30 years.
The answer is not to end American biotechnology research. Rather, the U.S. government would do well to make biotechnology research and development more attractive and encourage it to happen here. Thus, Washington must deregulate the life sciences sector while allotting a greater share of federal research and development funds for investment in budding biotech innovations.
Remember, the early tech sector was heavily propped up by federal research and development funds. It was only thanks to the presence of those federal dollars that prompted venture capitalists to take interest in further developing the tech sector, allowing for Silicon Valley to become the dominant industry that it is today. Something similar needs to happen in biotech to goose the development along here in the States.
At the same time, U.S. policymakers must strive to make it more difficult for American know-how and money to flow into the coffers of Chinese state owned enterprises conducting cutting edge research in China.
It is only through competition with China in the biotech market that Washington will ensure advanced capabilities are not so readily handed over to Chinese biotech firms (and, therefore, the Chinese military). In this way we may slow China’s development into a biotechnology superpower and give ourselves the time we need to better compete with China in this vital area.
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