Is Biological Warfare the ‘Strategic Commanding Heights’ of Conflict With China?

By John Mills
John Mills
John Mills
Col. (Ret.) John Mills is a national security professional with service in five eras: Cold War, Peace Dividend, War on Terror, World in Chaos, and now—Great Power Competition. He is the former director of cybersecurity policy, strategy, and international affairs at the Department of Defense. Mills is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy.
April 8, 2020Updated: May 19, 2020


When I was a young child growing up, I read and consumed books ferociously. One book I picked up at a garage sale piqued my interest. It was “How Japan Plans to Win.”

In the book, published in 1940 (before Pearl Harbor), but developed from notes and thoughts in the 1930s, a vocal and energized Japanese naval officer theorized a strategy to defeat the United States in the Pacific.

It sounded pretty prescient of things that played out shortly after its original publication.

I always thought—“How could this have happened? Here’s their plan and intent, and we were still caught off guard.”  A gestating adversary published and outlined the roadmap establishing a pathway to war in the most destructive worldwide conflict of the 20th century. How did we miss this? Why weren’t we prepared? An adventurist and forward-leaning staff officer telegraphs intent, detail, and plan, and the reaction of the national security apparatus in pre-World War II America gave this hidden-in-plain-sight indicator a big “Ho-hum.”

Sound familiar?

After a career, and perhaps a second, third, and fourth career in national security (depending on how it’s counted), I now have seen how these things happen. The world panorama is busy, confusing, and distracting. For senior leaders, planners, and staffers, it’s called the world of VUCA—Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.

It’s the duty of national security professionals to drive to closure, despite the VUCA, and deliver national security for the American people and our strategic partners. However, indicators of intent are often overlooked, as even the best, most professional, and most lucid-minded are barraged and often put on sensory overload by multiple, concurrent events.

Too much data, too much noise, too much chaff.

One time in the recent past, during a discussion with a senior colleague in regard to an urgent developing issue I was raising, my colleague responded and said (I’m paraphrasing a bit), “You’re absolutely right—this is a key phenom that’s being overlooked, and I’m very concerned by it. However, I and our national mission team are bleeding from our eyeballs with mission overload with all the alligators crawling into our canoe. I’m beating the alligators over the head with my paddle in the exact sequence prescribed by national priorities. The problem is, what you’ve identified is not yet on the national priority list of targets and topics.”

We were both right—there are complex phenom and there are immediate, identified alligators. So how do we see these new alligators that aren’t yet on the list? One way is to read their writings. They definitely read ours.

Another very senior colleague recently quipped, “When I go to a public speaking event, I’m swarmed by People’s Republic of China (PRC) ‘academics’ who’ve read my works in detail—they ask me voluminous questions about topics I don’t even remember.” They are reading our writings in detail. What about their writings?

‘War Without Rules’

When it comes to the Chinese regime, there are overlooked missives of history and harbingers of things to come. While many were distracted by “Russia, Russia, Russia” or other silliness of grievance and narcissism, the intent and strategy of a Great Power Competitor was being laid out right in front of us.

Two Chinese Air Force colonels met in the 1990s and started to dialogue, formulate, and envision what decisive conflict with the United States would look like. It would be unconstrained by any existing international convention. Everything would be on the table. The outcome? The 1999 book with the chilling title, “China: War Without Rules.”

Essentially, to win, China wouldn’t be limited, adhere, or conform to the accepted norms of warfare between nation-states. To them, these were Western rules meant to give Western powers, essentially the United States, an advantage. Eye-gouging, and everything else, would be on the table.

The first rule of this fight club—there are no rules.

A second issuance, even more timely in light of current events—and I would say more disturbing and concerning—was a treatise by Dr. Guo Jiwei in 2010, a medical doctor and staff member at the People’s Liberation Army’s Third Military Medical University in the Army University, titled “War for Biological Dominance.”

The foundational thesis was clear. If China loses 100 million people, that’s only one in 12, but if Canada and Australia lose 100 million, that’s everyone, plus a sizable swath of Americans. Ergo, the return on investment is well worth it. Biological warfare would be the “Strategic Commanding Heights” of the showdown with the United States. That Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and every other strategist would lunge at this was the essence of Guo’s logic.

And if there are no rules, why not?

If that one doesn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will. I was very involved in national security affairs at high levels in 2010, and I can assure everyone that biological warfare, offensive or defensive, wasn’t among the top 100 national-security concerns, topics, or actions.


Colonels, captains, and other professional staff members and their writings before, during, and after senior service schools can be a little edgy for two reasons. One, they want to garner a little more attention before the next promotion board, or two, they feel a sense of tenure in saying things they couldn’t say at lower levels or can’t if they achieve the next level.

A parallel exemplar to the CCP telegraphic writings previously mentioned was when I was in Singapore and the speaker from some PRC ministry with an overly long title was giving a speech. The frenzied way she shook her fist at the camera (ignoring the audience) and shouted, while smiling in a bizarre, almost crazed manner, was definitely theatrical—and way over the top; so much so that she looked like she was about to climb over the speaker’s podium and lunge at the camera.

After the speaker was done, I asked my colleague next to me what that frenzied performance was all about. She chuckled a bit and said, “She wasn’t speaking to us—she was performing for the Central Committee in Beijing. It’s all about the grade back home.” This was long before the concept of social credit score from a totalitarian system was implemented or well-known.

What’s the takeaway? Read totalitarians’ writings and take them to heart. They read, study, and analyze ours. The price of freedom is vigilance—part of that vigilance is being aware of the writings, statements, and intent.

Was this contagion part of their strategy? I’m not sure we’ll ever know for sure, but totalitarians are unconstrained by any concept of constitutional boundaries and have no problem ignoring the guard rails of functional, civil society, even if it means discarding one in 12 of their own citizenry.

Col. (Ret.) John Mills is a national security professional with service in five eras: Cold War, Peace Dividend, War on Terror, World in Chaos, and now—Great Power Competition. He is the former director of cybersecurity policy, strategy, and international affairs at the Department of Defense.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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