ASPEN, Colo. – The nation’s top intelligence officials publicly declared last week that China is seeking to supplant the United States as the dominant world power and represents the number one economic and national security threat. But few took note: U.S. debate is focused so heavily on Russia at the moment that discussion over how to deal with China’s rise has been muted. That’s a problem, as there’s no more time to waste.
Russia again dominated the conversation at this year’s Aspen Security Forum, an annual event where senior intelligence, law enforcement and national security officials huddle with industry and media to compare notes. Marquee guests such as FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats made news when pressed to confirm their assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, Moscow’s ongoing meddling and President Trump’s failure to consistently acknowledge both.
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein gave a speech on foreign influence operations almost entirely devoted to Russia, barely mentioning China. But in the few instances China did come up during the conference, officials unanimously sounded the alarm.
“China, from a counterintelligence perspective, in many ways represents the broadest, most challenging, most significant threat we face as a country,” Wray said. “… China is trying to position itself as the sole dominant superpower … They are trying to replace the United States in that role. Theirs is a long-term game.”
Wray said that the United States is just now waking up to the scope, scale and significance of what he called “the China threat,” which he warned must not be underestimated. Compared to Russia, he said, China is “in many ways, more of a long term threat to the country.”
“My hope is that we are in a moment where as a country we can pivot and really start to take this much more seriously,” Wray said.
Coats told me he agreed with Wray that the United States needs to become more aware of China’s strategy and recognize the challenge as bigger and more complex than Russia’s.
“It’s a different intent from what the Russians are trying to do,” said Coats. “China wants to be a global power. You see them spreading their influence.”
Coats said the United States has to make a fundamental decision as to whether China is a “true adversary” or a “legitimate competitor.” He said right now it is showing some signs in each direction.
During the only panel on China at the forum, two top U.S. government Asia officials laid out the case for each. Michael Collins, a top China official at the CIA, said the Xi Jinping regime has made clear it sees China as engaged in a “systems conflict” with the United States, essentially a zero-sum game for world domination.
“What they are waging against us is fundamentally a cold war. A cold war not like we said during the Cold War, but a cold war by definition,” he said. “It sets up a competition with us and what we stand behind far more significantly, by any extreme, to what the Russians could put forward,” he said.
That view is controversial in the China expert community, much of which is deeply invested in bettering U.S.-China relations. But Collins said that the United States must think separately about the regime and the country when assigning blame and crafting responses.
“We’re talking about this rising China, under this leadership directed by this Communist Party of China,” he said. “They accuse of us of looking at this in binary, zero-sum terms. That’s exactly how they are describing it,” he later said.
Acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Susan Thornton (who is retiring soon) put forward the other point of view, roughly that the United States should continue to encourage China to join the rules-based international order.
“We need to look in the era of globalization at how China mismatches with the rest of the world and figure out how to bring them into more convergence,” she said. “… China’s opportunities present a lot of positive prospects for not only the United States but the rest of the world.”
One reason Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decided not to keep Thornton is because she seems out of step with the Trump administration’s otherwise hawkish China team. Trump has increased pressure on China on trade and economic aggression, but he has also backpedaled at times and often failed to bring allies along.
If Collins is right and the cold war with China has already begun, then we have no choice but to fight to win. If Thornton is right, then at the very least we need to do much more to encourage and pressure China to behave better and prove it wants fair competition under agreed-upon rules.
Russia is a real short-term problem, but China is the greater long-term challenge. The United States must respond to what Wray calls China’s “whole of society” strategy with our own whole-of-society response. The frame for that discussion should be how to preserve American leadership and the world order China seeks to supplant.