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How did COVID-19 originate? The question may be larger than it looks

A laboratory technician works on samples to be tested for the novel coronavirus at the "Fire Eye" laboratory in Wuhan, China
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President Biden has directed an intensive study of the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. In the process of that review, the intelligence community also should look at the larger question: Did China take advantage of the pandemic’s ravaging spread as a limited form of biological warfare against its perceived adversaries? 

The notion, as unthinkable as it might seem, is no longer as implausible or paranoid an idea as it was earlier portrayed. Mounting questions and evidence have cast doubt on the likelihood that the deadly pathogen sprang naturally from an animal to human contact. Governments outside China are focusing attention on the possibility that the virus actually emerged from an accidental release at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But that should be only the beginning of the inquiry.  

New questions are being raised because of a history of lax security practices at the laboratory and recent reports of illness among personnel there just prior to previously reported official COVID-19 cases. But even an outbreak caused by an animal-to-human transmission would not have precluded Beijing’s opportunistically allowing the pathogen to spread to the rest of the world. As author Gordon Chang put it, “China’s leader knew (or should have known) that the result of his actions would be the transmission of disease beyond his borders.” 

It was clear at the time that the arrival of the virus in late 2019 just happened to coincide with remarkable turnarounds in several adverse developments for the communist regime. The Trump administration’s unprecedented trade war had delivered a significant hit to China’s economy in 2019, and this was only the result of Phase 1 of the confrontation. Former President Trump reportedly planned a gradual escalation of the trade pressure until China would be forced to make structural changes in its economic system. Those, in turn, could have resulted inevitably in corresponding political reforms, effectively a potential death knell for China’s communist system.  

Beijing saw the Trump administration’s trade challenge for what it was — an existential challenge and a veritable declaration of war from the United States, after decades of China waging an unanswered, new Cold War against the West.

Beijing could not win the trade competition while Trump was seriously committed to upping the ante as necessary to achieve his stated objective of economic rebalancing. With the 2020 election looming, he repeatedly gloated about how well the U.S. economy was doing in contrast to China’s, often hastening to add that it was not his intent to hurt Chinese prosperity, just to even the bilateral playing field.

Nor did Trump ever publicly discuss the political ramifications of economic restructuring for China — on the contrary, he expressed admiration for Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s hold on power.

But Xi certainly knew the domestic political stakes of economic concessions to Washington, so he and his colleagues undoubtedly saw U.S. motives differently from Trump’s assurances. Having spent decades accusing the West of “containment,” “encirclement,” and “keeping China down,” they now confronted a substantive basis for such accusations — against the party-state, rather than the Chinese people.

Beijing’s response options were limited. Converting the confrontation into an actual shooting war would have been catastrophic for China, destroying all that its leaders had been building for 70 years.  

Enter the coronavirus, what Chinese authorities originally called the “Wuhan virus” and “Wuhan pneumonia.” The most innocent explanation for its arrival was that it was a case of remarkable serendipity for China. Western countries clearly were unprepared, despite the experience of previous deadly China-origin outbreaks. Their economies suffered immediate and drastic dislocation throughout 2020 and into 2021. 

The wound to the U.S. economy put a stop to Trump’s advantage in the competitive dynamic and alleviated the immediate economic threat to China. The longer-term danger was deferred indefinitely, perhaps permanently. And the dreaded domestic political reforms suddenly receded from the horizon; China’s immediate America problem was once again tractable.

A second Trump term almost certainly would have meant the revival of what Beijing clearly saw as an anti-China agenda. By contrast, the expected return of the Clinton-Obama foreign policy under Joe Biden promised a much more inviting scenario, potentially reversing Trump’s tougher approach. Beijing made clear its preference for the Biden-Harris ticket.

President Biden’s adherence so far to the fundamentals of the Trump policies has sorely disappointed — even angered — the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), particularly his strengthening of ties with allies and security partners, further forging a multinational resistance to China’s aggressive moves. India and Taiwan, among other countries outside North America and Europe, share the same democratic values and are part of the ideological West. Worse, from Beijing’s perspective, they each give the lie to China’s hollow protestations that its particular population is not suited to democratic governance.

Taiwan, the most persistent bone in the throat of the CCP, having thrown off an anti-communist dictatorship in the 1980s and ’90s, demonstrates every day as a model democracy that a Chinese culture can take to self-government and the rule of law as readily as any other society.    

India, the world’s largest democracy and the second most populous nation, disproves Beijing’s lame excuse that a nation with a massive population requires authoritarianism to survive and thrive. Under current demographic trends in both countries, India’s population is destined to overcome China’s numbers over the next two decades.

Taiwan in particular fared relatively well in coping with the pandemic, leading to some invidious comparisons to China, even as it and India both deepened their security relations with Washington. India extended its cooperation as part of the Quad with Australia, Japan and the United States, and Taiwan’s security and diplomatic interaction with Washington intensified under Trump and so far has expanded with Biden.   

Almost as a parallel to the U.S. and European experience, both countries also suffered pandemic eruptions in recent weeks; India’s has been far more extensive and devastating. Whether these events are simply additional examples of serendipity to Beijing’s advantage, or something far more sinister connected to the original coronavirus outbreak, may be revealed in the Biden-ordered intelligence review. The review should not shy away from an honest assessment, even if it means accusing Beijing of something as extreme as biological warfare. If that should prove to be the case, there are non-kinetic responses available to Washington and the international community.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags coronavirus pandemic Donald Trump Investigations into the origin of COVID-19 Joe Biden lab leak Wuhan Institute of Virology Xi Jinping

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