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US intel chief says China is ‘unparalleled threat’ to the US

Soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)
April 16, 2021

On Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines described China as an “unparalleled priority” to the U.S. intelligence community as it assesses threats to the U.S.

Haines, who testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, summarized the findings of the intelligence community’s Annual Threat Assessment for 2021.

“Given that China is an unparalleled priority for the Intelligence Community, I will start with highlighting certain aspects of the threat from Beijing,” Haines began her testimony.

“China 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,” Haines continued. “China is employing a comprehensive approach to demonstrate its growing strength and compel regional neighbors to acquiesce to Beijing’s preferences, including its claims over disputed territory and assertions of sovereignty over Taiwan. It also has substantial cyber capabilities that if deployed, at a minimum, can cause
localized, temporary disruptions to critical infrastructure inside the United States.”

The 2021 Threat Assessment report noted China has been advancing its anti-satellite weapons (ASAT weapons) capabilities, including lasers that could be used to “blind” U.S. satellites, and anti-satellite missiles that could destroy them.

During questioning, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said “the United States and west writ large was a little bit asleep at the switch” with regard to monitoring China’s rise. Warner noted Chinese technology firm Huawei’s rise to become a global leader in 5G communications technology. Warner asked, “How does the [intelligence community] build up that expertise of being able to monitor China’s rise in a variety of technology areas?”

Haines said the intelligence community needs “to be as smart about technology as any other part of the U.S. government and our society.” She said, “That is something that we have been working on and bringing in the expertise that we need to the intelligence community.”

While Haines described China as an increasingly near-peer competitor to the U.S. she also noted China is not without its vulnerabilities.

“While China poses an increasingly formidable challenge to the U.S. role in global affairs, it is worth noting that its economic, environmental and demographic vulnerabilities all threaten to complicate its ability to manage the transition to the dominant role it aspires to in the decades ahead,” Haines said.

During her testimony on Wednesday, Haines also described ongoing threats posed by Russia and Iran. Haines said Russia is continuing to employ methods to undermine the U.S. and its western allies.

“While Russia does not want a conflict with the United States, Russian officials have long believed that Washington is seeking to weaken Russia and Moscow will use a range of tools to pursue its objectives, including mercenary operations, assassinations, and arms sales,” Haines said.

Haines added, Russia has “new weapons and cyber capabilities to threaten the United States and its allies, and seeks to use malign influence campaigns, including in the context of U.S. elections, to undermine our global standing, sow discord, and influence U.S. decision-making.”

Haines’ comments come after her office released an intelligence assessment in March, assessing Russia interfered in the 2020 election to harm then-candidate Joe Biden. That same March report assessed China did not deploy interference efforts during the 2020 election but did “take some steps to try to undermine former President Trump’s reelection.”