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Intelligence agencies: China is top threat to U.S. global influence

Jenna McLaughlin
·National Security and Investigations Reporter
·5 min read
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WASHINGTON — A 27-page report released ahead of testimony by the president's top intelligence officials identifies China as the biggest threat to U.S. global influence.

The annual threat assessment report, which summarizes the best assessments of intelligence analysts from across the 18 different agencies within the intelligence community, “focuses on the most direct, serious threats to the United States during the next year,” looking at everything from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and climate change to cyberattacks and technological competitiveness.

Senior intelligence officials, including Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, are expected to answer questions about the report this week in front of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Those hearings were temporarily suspended under President Donald Trump after intelligence officials testified about facts that contradicted Trump’s public statements, angering him and leading him to fire his director of national intelligence, Dan Coats.

Avril Haines testifies at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. (Melina Mara-Pool/Getty Images)
Avril Haines at her confirmation hearing as director of national intelligence before the Senate Intelligence Committee. (Melina Mara-Pool/Getty Images)

In contrast, President Biden has told his senior intelligence officials he expects them to speak truthfully, regardless of how those assessments affect his political goals.

According to the new assessment, released Tuesday morning, Beijing will continue its push to “undercut” Washington’s global influence, despite the intelligence officials’ prediction that Chinese leaders may “seek tactical opportunities to reduce tensions with Washington when such opportunities suit their interests.”

While senior Biden officials, including Secretary of State Tony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, have already met with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska, and climate envoy John Kerry plans to travel to China to address climate change, Beijing has not hesitated to engage in public saber-rattling when confronted with U.S. challenges.

In the near term, intelligence officials expect China to continue to try to establish global influence through “vaccine diplomacy,” as well as touting its success in responding to the pandemic, though public news reporting indicates Chinese vaccines are far less successful than U.S.-made versions.

Intelligence officials also expect Beijing to continue to ratchet up tensions with its neighbors in India, “intimidate rival claimants” in the South China Sea, increase military activity around Taiwan and cooperate with Russia in areas such as the economy and defense. According to the assessment, China will also “continue the most rapid expansion and platform diversification of its nuclear arsenal,” ignoring attempts at international arms control treaties.

In the realm of technology, space and digital espionage and attacks, the intelligence community expects Beijing to remain a top competitor, perhaps even surpassing the U.S. Perhaps most troublingly, beyond Beijing’s use of technology for surveillance and espionage, the intelligence community determined that Beijing “can launch cyber-attacks that, at minimum, can cause temporary disruptions to critical infrastructure within the United States.”

Chinese soldiers after a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of China's entry into the Korean War. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Chinese soldiers after a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of China's entry into the Korean War. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

The intelligence community also says Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang would continue to provoke and threaten Washington, each posing unique and evolving threats.

As for Moscow, the community assessed that Russian officials will continue to attempt to “undermine U.S. influence” through ongoing influence and cyber operations, though the analysts concluded Moscow likely “does not want a direct conflict with U.S. forces.”

Among the threats Russia poses are its ongoing “military modernization” efforts, information warfare, involvement in Syria and Ukraine, expanding and stockpiling its nuclear and other weapons, and continuing to target critical infrastructure through cyber operations, including “underwater cables and industrial control systems” in both the U.S. and allied countries.

The report warns that in the coming year, Iran may take risks and escalate tensions, depending on its own assessments of U.S. willingness to respond to attacks and concessions it believes the U.S. might negotiate away in exchange for its return to the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal. “Iran remains committed to countering US pressure, although Tehran is also wary of becoming involved in a full-blown conflict,” the report says.

The report says Iran may not “currently” be undertaking key nuclear weapons development projects, but it is possible that it will continue to ratchet up those activities, particularly “if Tehran does not receive sanctions relief.”

Presciently, the report predicts that Iranian officials would consider options including “further enriching uranium up to 60 percent.” The report’s release coincided with an announcement made Tuesday by Iran’s deputy foreign minister, just days after an Israeli-linked attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, that the country would be starting 60 percent enrichment of uranium.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump meet in the Demilitarized zone between North and South Korea on June 30, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump meet in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea on June 30, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The analysts also concluded that Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, has not changed his view that nuclear weapons are the “ultimate deterrent against foreign intervention,” a long-held conclusion that Trump refused to accept, due to his confidence in his diplomatic outreach with Pyongyang.

While global terrorism was consistently listed as a top threat in intelligence assessments following the 9/11 attacks and al-Qaida’s global growth, the intelligence community assesses that groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida now have degraded capabilities based on ongoing U.S. and allied counterterrorism operations.

The intelligence community noted that domestic violent extremists within the U.S. as well as similar groups in Europe, from white nationalists to neo-Nazis, present “an elevated threat to the United States” that has “ebbed and flowed for decades but has increased since 2015.”

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