China tops list of US’s biggest threats for first time

China tops list of US's biggest threats for first time

Josie Ensor

·3 min read
 
People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march in formation during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China in 2019 - THOMAS PETER /REUTERS
 
People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march in formation during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People’s Republic of China in 2019 – THOMAS PETER /REUTERS

The US has for the first time designated China as its number one threat, with the intelligence community revealing on Wednesday that it is opening investigations into Beijing “every 10 hours”.

Spy agency leaders told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that China is an “unparalleled priority”, citing the country’s regional aggression and cyber capabilities.

“I don’t think there is any country that presents a more severe threat to our innovation, our economic security and our democratic ideas,” Christopher Wray, FBI director, said in his testimony.

 

“And the tools in their toolbox to influence our businesses, our academic institutions, our governments at all levels are deep and wide and persistent.

“We have now over 2,000 investigations that tie back to the Chinese government,” he added. “I can assure the committee that’s not because our folks don’t have anything to do with their time.”

Chinese riot police patrol the perimeter of the Capital International Airport in Beijing - THOMAS PETER /Reuters
 
Chinese riot police patrol the perimeter of the Capital International Airport in Beijing – THOMAS PETER /Reuters

An annual intelligence report released on Tuesday warned that while all-out war between the two largest economies was unlikely, the US needed to prepare for conflict in the “grey zone” between war and peace, by increasing intelligence operations, cyberattacks and “coercive diplomacy”.

The report puts China’s push for “global power” first on the list of threats, followed by Russia, Iran and North Korea.

It also foresees China at least doubling its nuclear stockpile over the next decade and joining the space race in the next two years by launching a space station as part of its attempt to best Washington.

President Joe Biden has taken a hard stance on China and has repeatedly promised to stop it from passing the US to become the most powerful country in the world.

The president said he had made it clear to Xi Jinping, China’s president, that the US was not looking for confrontation, but would insist that Beijing abide by international rules for fair competition and fair trade and respect for human rights.

Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington - Bloomberg
 
Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington – Bloomberg

Avril Haines, director of National Intelligence, agreed with Mr Wray’s assessment in her address to the Senate.

The appearance by Ms Haines and the other intelligence directors was the first such public “Worldwide Threats” hearing since January 2019. Former President Donald Trump, who often clashed with security agencies, did not send officials last year to testify at what is normally an annual event.

In previous years, the biggest threat to the US identified at the hearing has usually been much more general – for example, cyber security – rather than a specific country.

Much of the hearing this year focused on technology – the threat from hacking, the importance of leading-edge development and the malign influence of social media.

“(China) also has substantial cyber capabilities that if deployed, at a minimum, can cause localised, temporary disruptions to critical infrastructure inside the United States,” Ms Haines warned.