United States intelligence officials said that China is using its military and economic might to compel its neighbors to accede to its territorial claims, but the Asian giant still has vulnerabilities that can derail its global aspirations.
Avril Haines, director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Wednesday that China, as “a near-peer competitor” of the United States, is working to undo global norms to favor its authoritarian regime, including using its growing strength to compel regional neighbors to heed its demands over territory claims, including that of Taiwan.
While it poses a great challenge to the United States, she noted its economic, environmental and demographic vulnerabilities “all threaten to complicate its ability to manage the transition to the dominate role it aspires to in the decades ahead.”
Its cyber ability, however, could disrupt critical U.S. infrastructure, she said.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns told Senators the competition with China over technology is “right at the core of our rivalry with an increasingly adversarial Chinese Communist Party” that is requiring them to strengthen their own capabilities and relations with foreign partners.
Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), said no country presents a more severe threat to U.S. innovation, economic security and democracy than China.
“The tools in their toolbox to influence our businesses, our academic institutions, our governments at all levels are deep and wide and persistent,” he said.
Wray pointed to the Justice Department’s indictment in October 2020 of China’s capabilities as it conducted Operation Fox Hunt, an illegal campaign to threaten, harass, surveil, blackmail and intimidate members of the Chinese diaspora in the United States.
“It’s an indication and an illustration just how challenging and diverse this particular threat is,” he said, adding the FBI has more than 2,000 investigations tied back to the Chinese government with a 1,300-percent increase in espionage cases in the past few years.
“We are opening a new investigation into China every 10 hours and I can assure the committee it’s not because our folks don’t have anything to do with their time,” he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican-Florida, asked the intelligence chiefs about the origins of the coronavirus, suggesting the pandemic may have been caused by an accident at a Wuhan, China, laboratory.
Haines replied it is accurate the community does not know where, when or how the virus was transmitted with the two theories being it was caused by a leak at the facility or it developed naturally.
Burns added the one thing that is clear is “Chinese leadership has not been fully forthcoming or fully transparent working with the WHO (World Health Organization) in providing the kind of original complete data that would help to answer those questions.”
Last month, the WHO released its report concerning the origins of the coronavirus that said it was “extremely unlikely” that it came from a leak at a Wuhan lab.
China came under swift criticism after it was published with the United States, the European Union and more than a dozen other nations calling for a second probe as China had withheld data from WHO investigators.
The hearing was held Wednesday amid growing concerns over China’s attempts to expand its influence and its human rights abuses with Senate lawmakers last week introducing bipartisan legislation to bolster the U.S. position both domestically and internationally to thwart Chinese competition.
Haines also told the lawmakers Wednesday that the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated inherent risks to interdependency in the coming years during which the world will face “more intense and cascading global challenges” ranging from disease to financial concerns.
The pandemic, she said, will continue to fuel humanitarian and economic crisis, political unrest and geopolitical competition with China and Russia seeking to gain favor and influence through their so-called vaccine diplomacy while other countries will battle growing debt.
“The critical impact of the pandemic has also served to highlight the importance of public health to national security,” she said.
Russia, North Korea and terrorism, including domestic violent extremism influenced by racial bias and antigovernment sentiment, are other concerns facing the intelligence community, the intelligence officials said.
On Tuesday, the Office of the Director of national Intelligence released its threat assessment report ahead of the meeting, which was the first time in two years the intelligence community has attended the session amid its friction with the former Trump administration.