China committed to enhancing global biosecurity governance

By Yang Xiao / 02-01-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

The Biosecurity Law of the People’s Republic of China went into effect on April 15, 2021. Photo: TUCHONG

In the near future, biosecurity governance is expected to become an important issue of global concern, reflecting China’s direct engagement in promoting the construction of a community with a shared future for mankind. 

Categories and trends 

As biotechnology advances, the ensuing risks and our understanding of biosecurity have evolved in tandem. Prior to the mid-1970s, biosecurity governance primarily involved arms control regarding biological and toxin weapons. Around the turn of the 21st century, biosecurity governance expanded to incorporate ethical considerations of advanced biotechnology and laboratory biosecurity management. In the past 20 years, the scope of biosecurity governance has expanded to encompass bioterrorism prevention, epidemic and pandemic preparedness, the security of crops, ecosystems, species, genetic resources, and emerging biotechnologies such as synthetic biology. 

At present, global biosecurity governance concerns three main aspects: laboratory biosecurity, biosecurity risk deliberately brought about by humans, and biodefense at the level of national security and international strategy. Future global biosecurity governance needs to keep a watchful eye on three key trends. 

First, biosecurity involves complex social issues that can easily develop from single risks into systemic risks. Biosecurity governance should transcend bioscience and biotechnology and consider various factors such as national security, social stability, culture and ethnic identity in order to carry out forward-looking, comprehensive transnational, inter-departmental, and cross-sectoral governance. 

Second, biosecurity issues differ greatly from other security issues in terms of research paradigms, solutions, and governance practices due to the dual-use nature of modern bioscience and biotechnology. Traditional governance models struggle to establish efficient monitoring, early warning, prevention and control systems for biosecurity. A single biosecurity risk point, once triggered, is likely to cause local socio-economic turmoil and ecological disasters. 

In particular, the impact of major epidemics and pandemics often extend beyond the public health sector, producing complex contagion effects in politics, the economy, society, and ecological security. This leads to the spread of local problems to all aspects of national security, and may even cause compounded crises of social disorder, economic fluctuations, and political unrest in some regions and countries. 

Third, biosecurity risks pose serious challenges to all humanity, as national security is inextricably linked with international security. While isolationism was an effective biosecurity defense strategy in the early stages of globalization, pathogens can now spread rapidly across the globe. Tackling transnational biosecurity challenges necessitates enhancing national governance, international cooperation, and participation in global governance. However, in recent years, certain major powers have increasingly resorted to unilateralism, withdrawing from international agreements, and hidden political agendas with regard to global biosecurity governance. 

As a verification protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) has not been successfully negotiated, the framework for global biosecurity governance has not fully materialized. Nevertheless, significant biosecurity crises have repeatedly affected global security and development. In response to this, minilateral biosecurity governance has arisen. Various regional organizations and international forums have started to enhance collaboration in biosecurity governance. 

As geopolitical competition has changed the overall environment in which global challenges are addressed, vaccine diplomacy, patent blockades, the war for talent, and other conflicts have intensified. After intergovernmental coordination failed, non-state actors such as charities and large pharmaceutical multinationals have been active in global biosecurity governance, which may orient it towards disease-specific or issue-specific efforts driven by capital, deviating from the goal of serving the global population and addressing universal challenges. 

China’s Practice 

China is committed to contributing to global biosecurity governance in terms of ideas, norms, and actions. The Chinese understanding of biosecurity suggests three approaches to global biosecurity governance. The first is to focus on human security and supplant stratified, competitive governance by universal, non-discriminatory governance. The second approach emphasizes common security and replacing money-oriented governance with governance that is not driven by capital and benefits a larger population. The third approach requires improving foresight to move beyond traditional restorative governance. 

It is necessary to guide global biosecurity governance by norms and solidify broad consensus into codes of conduct that are widely observed. In 2021, China, along with other countries, submitted a working paper on the Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists. The Tianjin Guidelines, developed through multiple rounds of discussions among scientists from more than 20 countries across four continents, is a collaborative endeavor between Tianjin University in China, Johns Hopkins University in the US, and the InterAcademy Partnership. 

The key to governance lies in capacity building and shared responsibility. The development of China’s biosecurity industry can give impetus to regional biosecurity governance by centering on gene sequencing technology, digital health governance empowered by information technology, and reserves of drugs, vaccines, and other medical resources. 

Yang Xiao is a research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.