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As with the Wuhan Virus, China Isn’t Being Transparent About Its Chemical Weapons Program




China declared compliance with the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (Chemical Weapons Convention, CWC) in 1997, stating that it had a “small offensive chemical weapons program” that had been dismantled. 


The meaning of the declaration is complicated, however, by China’s background.


Negotiations of the Chemical Weapons Convention had spanned almost 12 years when it was finally adopted by the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in September 1992. Allowing for stringent verification of compliance by State Parties, the CWC opened for signature in January 1993 and eventually entered into force in April 1997 — 180 days after deposit of the 65th instrument of ratification at the headquarters established at The Hague in Netherlands.


According to the September 1996 U.S. Senate Executive Report on The Chemical Weapons Convention, Committee on Foreign Relations, the CWC is the first disarmament agreement negotiated within a multilateral framework providing for the elimination of an entire category of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) under universally applied international control.


In order to prepare for the entry-into-force of the CWC, a Preparatory Commission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was established. It was charged with the responsibility to prepare detailed operation procedures and to put into place the necessary infrastructure for the permanent implementing agency provided for in the Convention, as cited by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.


The CWC prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer, or use of chemical weapons by States Parties, which, in turn, must take all necessary steps to enforce prohibition in respect of persons (natural or legal) within their jurisdiction.



As per the Preamble of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the CWC prohibits the use of herbicides as a method of warfare.



Is China in Compliance with the CWC?


The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress ratified the CWC on April 25, 1997, as one of the original States Parties.


China’s previous dual-use chemical-related transfers to Iran’s chemical weapons program indicated that, at a minimum, China’s chemical export controls were not operating effectively enough to ensure compliance with its CWC obligations. In March 1997, Israel’s authorities reported the arrest of an Israeli businessman, Nahum Manbar, for allegedly selling Chinese chemical weapon components to Iran.


Soon thereafter, a May 1997 report, China: Chemical and Biological Weapons by the Federation of American Scientists, cited that, pursuant to the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, the U.S. government imposed trade sanctions on five Chinese individuals, two Chinese companies, and one Hong Kong-based company for knowingly and materially contributing to the Iranian chemical weapons program.


China had declared compliance with the CWC in 1997, claiming that its “small offensive chemical weapons program” had been dismantled. However, the U.S. alleged in 2003 that Beijing was operating an “advanced chemical weapons research and development program.” Notwithstanding, lack of sufficient evidence failed to confirm China’s previous or ongoing activities.



China’s Long History with Chemical Warfare



During the course of research and findings published in my book titled Nuclear China: A Veiled Secret (2014), I argued that China’s involvement with chemical warfare preceded the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.


With the advances in modern chemical industry and the birth of organic chemistry in the late 19th century, it was probably inevitable that chemical weapons would appear on the battlefield (World War I). During the 1920s, Chinese warlords — namely Zhao Hengti, Cao Kun, Feng Yuxiang, and Zhang Zuolin — expressed interest in purchasing or enlisting European firms to help manufacture chemical weapon agents.


According to a paper titled “China’s Role in the Chemical and Biological Disarmament Regimes,” published in the Spring 2002 edition of Non-proliferation Review, Zhang Zuolin reportedly contracted with a German firm named Witte for the construction of a chemical weapons production facility in Shenyang, the capital and largest city of China’s northeast Liaoning province, and hired Russian and German chemical engineers.


China’s relentless proliferant conduct vis-à-vis WMDs received condemnation and censure globally, including from former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation Paula Adamo DeSutter, who stated in 2006: “We remain disappointed in the continuing proliferant behavior of certain Chinese entities, and we remain deeply concerned about the Chinese government’s commitment towards its non-proliferation obligations.”


Testifying before the U.S.-China Economic Security Review Commission, a Congress-sanctioned panel, DeSutter went on to state that Chinese involvement in biological weapons went against international law: “We maintain reservations about China’s current research activities and dual-use capabilities, which raise the possibility that sophisticated biological weapons and chemical weapons’ related work could be underway.”


Nuclear China: A Veiled Secret (KW Publishers, 2014) submits that while there is little uncertainty that China has possessed chemical weapons in the past, the types, advancement, and quantities of the agents remain copiously guarded and unknown. In all likelihood, the Chinese military is thought to have developed blister agents, such as mustard and lewisite.


In a January 2001 report titled”Proliferation: Threat and Response,” the U.S. Department of Defense stated:



Beijing is believed to have an advanced chemical warfare program including research and development, production, and weaponization capabilities…. While China claims it possesses no chemical agent inventory, it is believed to possess a moderate inventory of traditional agents…. Even though China has ratified the CWC, made its declaration, and subjected its declared chemical weapons facilities to inspections, we believe that Beijing has not acknowledged the full extent of its chemical weapons program.


The report further stated that China’s chemical industry has the capability to produce many chemicals, some of which have been sought by states trying to develop their own chemical warfare capability. Foreign sales of such chemicals have been a source of foreign exchange for China.


The Chinese government has imposed restrictions on the sale of some chemical precursors. However, its enforcement activities generally have yielded mixed results.



China’s Defensive Chemical Weapons Capability


Beijing is reported to possess an established system of chemical weapons defense, including a cadre of chemical defense specialists supplied with decontamination equipment, modest detection capabilities, and protective suits. However, it also needs to be stated that some of China’s chemical weapons defense material and methods are dated, bulky, and best-suited to defend against an unlikely land invasion from China’s western and southern borders, as per the Spring 2002 edition of Non-proliferation Review.


China took active interest in binary chemical weapons which contained two relatively harmless chemicals that react during a munition’s flight to the target to yield a lethal agent. China believed that binary munitions possess characteristics that remain well-suited for a people’s war under modern conditions. This primarily refers to greater safety in production, storage, delivery; extended shelf life; and capacity for “surprise and deception” as cited in the book by Rosita Dellios titled Modern Chinese Defense Policy (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 1990).


Moreover, an unnamed Chinese military source cited in the Spring 2002 edition of Non-proliferation Review stated,



… due to the similarities with civilian uses for chemical industrial products, one can now sufficiently develop and produce chemical weapons on the sly. Truly a new type of chemical weapon, binary weapons will gradually follow a trend towards replacing unitary chemical munitions.


As far as Chinese chemical defense specialists are concerned, the drawbacks of binary weapons are that its components achieve only a limited yield of nerve agent (the U.S. 155-mm binary shell had a 70% yield) and the reaction between difluor and the alcohol components usually takes about eight to 10 seconds to complete.


Elaborating on the response to an enemy that would use chemical weapons against China, the Journal of Chemical Defense (Fanghua Xuebao) stated:


The best way is to destroy the enemy’s chemical weapons capability or at least degrade it, causing the other side to be unable to carry out their offensive plan…. Known as aggressive defense to ensure one’s survival. On the battlefield, after ascertaining the placement of [the] enemy’s chemical weapons, including firing lines, command and control systems, and ordnance depots, every command level officer is to quickly and decisively destroy them by use of organized artillery, air power, and other assets.


In addition, and significantly, the Academy of Chemical Defense (Fanghua Yanjiuyuan) located in Beijing is tasked with chemical defense training. It offers a four-year curriculum, graduating approximately 4,000 commissioned chemical defense officers annually. Subsequently, these cadres are responsible for chemical weapons’ defense training throughout the Chinese military units.


Besides, at the level of militia training, a military high school in Qingdao demonstrated students’ knowledge of civil defense, including dispersal of gases, first aid, and radiological dosimetry. Also in 1993, a dangerous chemical fire outbreak in Shenzhen necessitated the expertise of a special anti-chemical warfare medicine unit. 




The above researched citations amply point towards the fact that the Chinese military forces have a high probability of capability and understanding of the chemical warfare doctrine. Moreover, Chinese forces are reported to routinely conduct defensive chemical warfare training.



Despite that China has ratified the CWC, Beijing still falls far short of complete transparency regarding the full extent and scope of its chemical weapons program.


In a previous article published in JAPAN Forward, I had elaborated the views of many Chinese military thinkers and researchers who advocated that China should prepare itself to wage warfare beyond rules. The expanding graph of Chinese military’s interest and stake in asymmetric weapons and technology as an emerging domain of warfare becomes increasingly relevant in the current Wuhan virus context.


China’s future commitment to chemical and biological weapons’ usage hangs by a thread, without any assurance, or insurance.


 Author: Monika Chansoria

Dr. Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of The Japan Institute of International Affairs or any other organization with which the author is affiliated.




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