Here's what makes US spy agencies so much more worried about China than Russia

·7 min read
intelligence agency committee worldwide threats Christopher Wray Paul Nakasone Avril Haines William Burns Scott Berrier
FBI Director Christopher Wray, NSA Director Gen. Paul Nakasone, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director William Burns, and DIA Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, April 15, 2021. Tasos Katopodis/Pool via REUTERS
  • Amid the myriad challenges the US faces, China poses the greatest risk, top US intelligence officials say.

  • While there are some similarities in their methods, Beijing's broader strategic ambitions worry those officials more than Russia's challenges.

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The chiefs of the leading US intelligence agencies recently testified before Congress about the most important threats to US national security over the next year.

The Intelligence Community's annual threat assessment reflects its collective insights and describes a wide range of threats to national security, ranging from state actors and terrorism to nuclear weapons and cyberattacks.

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The US faces myriad conventional and unconventional threats: Russia, North Korea, Iran, terrorist organizations, climate change, pandemics, and migration are just some of them. Yet, China unquestionably rises to the top as the primary danger to US national security.

During the threat assessment hearing - which is normally held annually but didn't occur in 2020 - the Director of National Intelligence and heads of the CIA, NSA, FBI, and Defense Intelligence Agency described what they saw as the current and future dangers.

"China is an unparalleled priority for the Intelligence Community … [it] increasingly is a near-peer competitor challenging the United States in multiple arenas, while pushing to revise global norms in ways that favor the authoritarian Chinese system," Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence, said during the hearing.

While China is the main competitor, Russia shouldn't be underestimated.

Still a dangerous opponent

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin, then Russia's prime minister, judges an arm-wrestling match at a pro-Kremlin youth group's summer camp north of Moscow, August 1, 2011. Reuters

Russia is keeping up its efforts to undermine US influence and break up Western alliances, such as NATO or even the European Union.

To achieve this, Moscow is using a combined approach that includes covert action, misinformation, cyberwarfare, and arms sales to countries affiliated with the West, such as the sale of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to Turkey.

Russian covert-action programs don't seem fazed by publicity, which such programs normally avoid at all costs. In some cases, such publicity may in fact be a goal of the Russian intelligence services behind those operations.

The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent, in the UK in 2018 and the attempted assassination of opposition figure Alexei Navalny in Russia in 2018 show Moscow's thuggish and sloppy approach. The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has successfully eliminated a number of other rivals and dissidents.

Interestingly, the Intelligence Community assess that Moscow's motivation for election interference and disinformation campaigns is a desire to reach an accommodation with the US on mutual noninterference in each country's domestic affairs and recognition of Russia's sphere of influence in the countries of the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine.

Although seen a declining power, Russia's actions show that it can still bite and shouldn't be underestimated.

China's uncertain rise

xi jinping wine
Chinese President Xi Jinping raises a wine glass at a reception in Beijing, September 2014. Feng Li/Getty

Despite Russia's evergreen threat, China is the main strategic competitor of the US and West.

China views the US the same way the US sees Russia: as a declining power. And relations between Washington and Beijing revolve around two main issues: broader great-power competition and the use and abuse of technology.

As it grows and gains confidence, China is becoming more assertive on the international stage, challenging the status quo. Beijing doesn't agree with the rules-based system that the US created after World War II and wishes to do away with it in part or in whole.

This rules-based system relies on international law and international bodies, such as the International Court of Justice and the UN. The Intelligence Community assess that Beijing "will continue ... to foster new international norms that favor the authoritarian Chinese system."

Although Beijing has used the US-led rules-based system to become a regional power with global aspirations, it seeks to undermine that system to gain an advantage over the West.

In the absence of that rules-based system, however, China will have to come up with a viable alternative, for example authoritarian capitalism, which it already employs domestically.

Such as system might be a hard sell to some countries, especially to liberal democracies, but other countries, particularly those without strong democratic institutions, might be receptive. Thus, we might end up with a bipolar world: the US leading an alliance of liberal democracies and China commanding a bloc of authoritarian states.

Many in China see their country as ascending to the great-power status it held prior to recent centuries, when it was undercut by civil strife and foreign interference. President Xi Jinping has said that China's rise and the US's seeming stumble means "the world is going through changes seen once in a century."

But, as the Intelligence Community assesses, Beijing's bid for global supremacy is complicated and might be frustrated by its economic, environmental, and demographic vulnerabilities. In the past, revisionist powers facing such headwinds have become more aggressive.

A technological edge

xi putin toast
Xi and Putin toast while in Vladivostok, Russia, September 11, 2018. Sergei Bobylev/TASS Host Photo Agency/Pool via Reuters

Technology, and more importantly China's theft of it, is another important factor influencing the US-China relationship.

According to the FBI, there has been an astounding 1,300% increase in Chinese economic espionage investigations in recent years, and the Bureau is currently working on more than 2,000 cases linked to Beijing, with a new case opening every 10 hours.

China has a whole-of-government approach to intelligence and national security. Nothing is off-limits, and every citizen is required to assist the regime. There is even a law that mandates all individuals and entities cooperate with the military and security services and share any technology or information to which they might have access.

Chinese security services and companies are highly adept in stealing technology from the US through a variety of methods, ranging from cyberattacks to more traditional human intelligence. Beijing's efforts to spread its version of 5G across the world is seen as a national security threat by nearly all the countries involved.

But China also has potent cyber capabilities that it can leverage to cause localized, temporary disruptions to US critical infrastructure as a form of coercion or deterrence. Close to 90% of the US's critical infrastructure is operated by private companies, thus necessitating cooperation between government and private industry in dealing with cyber threats.

Beijing's cyberwarfare capabilities can also be used for intelligence collection, targeting, attack, or influence operations.

China is using overt and covert programs in an attempt to shape the political environment in the US and elsewhere in a way that favors Beijing and is amenable its domestic and international interests.

During the social unrest of 2020, for example, it wasn't just Russia that tried to intensify divisions in the US through information operations. China played a big part in that as well.

While there are some similarities in Russia's and China's methods, it is Beijing's broader strategic ambitions that set it apart and that worry the US's top intelligence officials.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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