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US Navy officers aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Mustin monitor a Chinese vessel in the East China Sea on April 4. Photo: US Navy

US intelligence assessment moves China to the top of the threat list

  • A report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence begins with a section on ‘China’s push for global power’
  • The first threat assessment of Joe Biden’s presidency picks up where the Trump administration left off

The US intelligence community has put China at the top of its annual report of national security threats, warning of Beijing’s struggle to realise “an epochal geopolitical shift”, including increased air and naval operations in Asia intended to assert its control in contested areas.

“Beijing is increasingly combining its growing military power with its economic, technological and diplomatic clout to preserve the CCP [Chinese Communist Party], secure what it views as its territory and regional pre-eminence and pursue international cooperation at Washington’s expense,” said the report, published last week and declassified on Tuesday.

The Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), begins with a section on “China’s push for global power”, followed by three sections describing the “provocative actions” of Russia, Iran and North Korea, before moving on to international issues such as Covid-19 and climate change.

Avril Haines is the US director of national intelligence. Photo: AP

In the South and East China seas, Beijing “will use growing numbers of air, naval and maritime law enforcement platforms” in an effort to show Japan and Southeast Asian countries that it has effective control over the contested areas, the report warned.

“We expect the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] to continue pursuing overseas military installations and access agreements to enhance its ability to project power,” it said, adding that the PLA’s “highly accurate short-, medium- and intermediate-range conventional systems are capable of holding US and allied bases in the region at risk”.

The ODNI’s warning follows the deployment by Beijing and Washington of aircraft carrier strike groups to the region, much of which China claims as its own territory, led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the Liaoning, respectively, amid escalating tensions near the Philippines and Taiwan.

Joe Biden’s CIA nominee William Burns calls China an ‘authoritarian adversary’

The ODNI, now under the leadership of Avril Haines in President Joe Biden’s administration, picks up where her predecessor under former president Donald Trump, John Ratcliffe, left off. Ratcliffe wrote in an opinion piece published by The Wall Street Journal in December that China “poses the greatest threat to America today, and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom worldwide since World War II”.

Ratcliffe’s commentary and the latest ODNI threat report underscore a significant change in the agency’s treatment of China. Its previous comprehensive threat assessment, published in January 2019 when Dan Coats was national intelligence director, included a “China and Russia” section more than halfway into the document under the heading of “regional threats”.

Haines will join the heads of other agencies, including the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency, for Senate and House intelligence committee hearings on “worldwide threats” on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.

Washington and Beijing are increasingly at diplomatic loggerheads as the Chinese government challenges US leadership. Their first high-level meeting of the Biden administration – last month in Anchorage, Alaska – quickly devolved into mutual recriminations before both sides zeroed in on a narrow set of issues on which they might be able to cooperate.
The differing emphasis on China as seen in the 2019 (left) versus 2021 indexes of the Threat Assessment report.
Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that Beijing would only engage with Washington as an equal and warned that the country should not expect to have a final say on global affairs.

“The door for dialogue with China is open. But the dialogue should be done on equal basis and with mutual respect,” he said.

“China will not accept that there is any nation in the world that [can] put itself superior to the others, and that any nation will have a final say on world affairs. If the US continues to confront, China will take it calmly without fear.”

The latest ODNI assessment concluded that China is undertaking “the most rapid expansion and platform diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history” and part of this strategy is to “ensure an intercontinental second-strike capability”.

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The conclusions on nuclear and missile technology align with those drawn by the US Defence Department’s “China Military Power Report”, which said “China has already achieved parity with – or even exceeded – the United States in several military modernisation areas,” including land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles.

That report to US lawmakers, made public in September, said China’s nuclear warhead stockpile was likely to more than double over the next decade.

The report also said China was making progress in deploying weapons meant to disable satellites the US and its allies use for military operations.