- POLITICAL SERIES
Future world order: Economic tug-of-war / Biotech serves as next front of U.S.-China tensions
16:15 JST, January 8, 2023
The post-Cold War global structure has collapsed amid the confrontation between the United States and China, not to mention Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What will become of the world order long led by the United States? What strategies should Japan take in response? The following is the first installment in a series of articles looking into the struggle for mastery among global powers in the economic arena.
A senior official of the U.S. National Security Council and a senior official of Japan’s Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry held talks in Washington in June last year and shared the same sense of crisis. China has been collecting from beyond its borders genomic data with information on complete sets of genetic material.
The officials also confirmed that their nations would boost measures against China in the field of biotechnology through the Quad, a four-nation cooperative framework that also includes Australia and India.
The United States and China are competing in research and development, believing that technological hegemony in a wide range of fields will determine not only economic, but also security superiority. Amid such a situation, biotechnology is a particular field of focus as biotech can be utilized in pharmaceuticals and regenerative medicine, with the possibility it could be the key to energy and food security.
China has allocated huge budgets to this area so far, exceeding ¥11 trillion, including the cost of developing research bases, according to a report by the U.S. Congress.
Both Washington and Tokyo are becoming increasingly alarmed at the prospect of Beijing building its network to collect genomic data.
Global data collection
China has achieved rapid economic growth under its state capitalism in which the Communist Party administration controls all economic activity. For this reason, since the country entered the global economy, there have been endless concerns that Beijing may be forcibly accumulating genomic data and advanced technologies from around the world via its corporate activities and participation in international organizations.
The human genome is said to be the ultimate personal information and thus analyzing it can help to understand genetic characteristics and predict future risks of various diseases. Microorganisms have also attracted attention in recent years related to the production of biofuels. Understanding genomic data of new species is the key to synthetic biology, the study of creating new organisms.
BGI Genomics Co., a China-based genomic analysis firm that has grown rapidly through the sales of test kits for the novel coronavirus, is now commissioned by various countries to analyze genomes. The Chinese company is decisively competitive for its low cost.
In 2010, the management of the World Data Centre for Microorganisms, an international organization that collects and manages information on microorganisms, was transferred from the National Institute of Genetics in Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture, to the Institute of Microbiology that belongs to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Such a move came after deliberations among relevant countries recognizing the Chinese institution’s higher performance in its database construction capability.
Since then, the Chinese institute has introduced a free system to analyze genomes of newly discovered microorganisms. The Chinese government is said to have been funding the project. Data on microorganisms and genomes have been collected from various nations, mainly developing countries.
In Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a federal agency, is investigating allegations related to two scientists who are married to each other and originally from China, as they may have been involved in shipping substances to China without permission. The substances reportedly could be used to reproduce vaccines and viruses. The establishment of a special committee was decided last November to allow members of the Canadian Parliament to access confidential documents over the issue.
The couple at issue used to work at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Canada. They lost their security clearances in July 2019, however, and have gone missing ever since.
The institute has the nation’s only laboratory that deals with the most dangerous pathogens, including Ebola. The wife was a particularly prominent scientist and was head of the division of vaccine development and antiviral therapy.
Canada’s opposition Conservative Party has raised the issue of the couple having conducted experiments with researchers associated with the Chinese military and called for an investigation. The administration of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, however, has been cautious about disclosing information, saying that it could undermine national security.
In October last year, the U.S. Defense Department added BGI Genomics to a blacklist identifying it to be a Chinese military company operating in the United States. This subjected the company to an investment ban from Americans.
“The department is determined to highlight and counter the People’s Republic of China’s Military-Civil Fusion development strategy, which supports the modernization goals of the People’s Liberation Army,” the Pentagon said in a statement issued with that month’s blacklist.
Retired U.S. Army Col. John Mills, who served as director of cybersecurity policy, strategy, and international affairs at the Defense Department, pointed to the genomic data that BGI and others collect and the possibility of sharing it with the Chinese military. He said that China may be capable of creating viruses that target specific ethnic groups, making for a deadly threat.
For its part, Washington is promoting the development of biotechnology as part of its national security policy and as part of such a shift, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order on expanding investment in biotechnology in September last year.
“Today’s action is going to ensure that America leads the world in biotechnology and biomanufacturing,” Biden said, “so we don’t have to rely on anywhere else in the world.”
Likewise, a senior U.S. official stressed the importance of preventing the outflow of technology to China. The United States needs to break out of what the senior official said was this negative spiral, where state-of-the-art technologies developed in the U.S. are stolen by China from overseas manufacturing facilities, and the United States loses its international market due to price competitiveness.
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