NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - China accused the United States military of operating "dangerous" biolabs in Ukraine, echoing a Russian conspiracy theory that Western officials warned could be part of an effort to justify President Vladimir Putin's invasion after the fact.
"US biolabs in Ukraine have indeed attracted much attention recently," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Tuesday in response to a question from a local reporter.
He added that "all dangerous pathogens in Ukraine must be stored in these labs and all research activities are led by the US side", without providing evidence to back up the claim.
Mr Zhao called on "relevant sides to ensure the safety" of the facilities and said "the US, as the party that knows the labs the best, should disclose specific information as soon as possible, including which viruses are stored and what research has been conducted."
The comments mirror the diversion tactics China's diplomats used last year when questioned about the origins of Covid-19.
Back then they frequently pointed to Fort Detrick, a US military facility in Maryland that the Soviet Union falsely claimed in the 1980s was the source of the virus causing Aids and that Mr Zhao again referenced Tuesday.
Britain's Defence Ministry said in a tweet that it had noticed an uptick in allegations by Russia that Ukraine is working on biological or nuclear weapons.
"These narratives are long standing but are currently likely being amplified as part of a retrospective justification for Russia's invasion of Ukraine," it added.
Since 1991, a unit of the US Department of Defence has cooperated with former satellites of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, to secure and take apart weapons of mass destruction that have been left behind.
The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Programme is intended to "support defence and military cooperation with the objective of preventing proliferation", according to the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a US non-profit.
The Department of Defence and Ukraine's Health Ministry then signed a treaty in 2005 to prevent any proliferation of pathogens in facilities in Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa and elsewhere that could be used in biological weapons.
In 2020, Interfax-Ukraine reported that the Security Service of Ukraine described as "fake news" posts on social media claiming the US had weapons labs in the nation.
The counterintelligence service known as the SBU said that Washington and Kyiv were working to counter possible biological terrorism.
China has walked a fine diplomatic line since Russia attacked Ukraine on Feb 24.
It has in recent years been making the case that as a richer, more powerful nation it deserves a bigger say on the world stage. Yet it also wants the benefits of closer ties with Moscow, largely to offset what it sees as Washington's undue influence around the world.
Mr Zhao repeated at the press briefing that China's position on Ukraine remains "consistent and clear cut", signaling that the Asian nation is still trying to avoid picking a side on the issue.
When asked whether China was ready to say that Russia had "invaded" its Eastern European neighbour, Mr Zhao said: "I don't think the question is of any point."