China is advancing its global power as it seeks to replace the United States, while Russia also is determined to challenge key American interests, according to the annual intelligence survey of national security threats released Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
North Korea and Iran also pose significant security dangers to the U.S. along with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the DNI warned in its first annual threat report required under new intelligence legislation passed by Congress.
By contrast, global terrorist groups, including the Islamist State, al Qaeda and Hezbollah, which once dominated U.S. strategic threat analysis, may continue to pose threats, but U.S.-led attacks on ISIS and al Qaeda have significantly degraded their ability to threaten America and its allies, the DNI report concluded.
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will continue its whole-of-government efforts to spread China’s influence, undercut that of the United States, drive wedges between Washington and its allies and partners, and foster new international norms that favor the authoritarian Chinese system,” the report said. Beijing could seek to reduce bilateral tensions as a tactic to promote its policies, but Chinese technology theft and espionage remain “the top threat” to U.S. competitiveness.
“Beijing sees increasingly competitive U.S.-China relations as part of an epochal geopolitical shift and views Washington’s economic measures against Beijing since 2018 as part of a broader U.S. effort to contain China’s rise,” the DNI report said.
China’s leadership is seeking to preserve its power, secure territory and “compel regional neighbors to acquiesce to Beijing’s preferences, including its claims over disputed territory and assertions of sovereignty over Taiwan,” the report said.
The intelligence assessment warns that China’s leaders are pressing Taiwan to move toward reunification while condemning increased U.S.-Taiwan engagement.
“We expect that friction will grow as Beijing steps up attempts to portray Taipei as internationally isolated and dependent on the mainland for economic prosperity, and as China continues to increase military activity around the island,” the report said.
Militarily, China’s large-scale buildup of missiles and other forces is described by the DNI as “potentially destabilizing international norms and relationships.” More Chinese military bases are expected to be set up around the world in the coming years, while Beijing is also focused on space-based weapons and cyberattack capabilities to target U.S. satellites and infrastructure.
“The PLA Rocket Force’s highly accurate short-, medium-, and intermediate-range conventional systems are capable of holding U.S. and allied bases in the region at risk,” the report said. The Chinese military’s nuclear buildup is “the most rapid expansion and platform diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history” with a projected doubling of warheads in the next decade.
China also is “not interested” in conducting arms control talks that would restrict its strategic modernization plans.
“China is building a larger and increasingly capable nuclear missile force that is more survivable, more diverse, and on higher alert than in the past, including nuclear missile systems designed to manage regional escalation and ensure an intercontinental second-strike capability,” the report said.
Chinese intelligence and influence operations, including elections interference are expanding, the report said.
“Beijing has been intensifying efforts to shape the political environment in the United States to promote its policy preferences, mold public discourse, pressure political figures whom Beijing believes oppose its interests, and muffle criticism of China on such issues as religious freedom and the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong,” the report said.
DNI analysts said COVID-19 has disrupted life worldwide, disrupting the economic, political, and security spheres and raising geopolitical tensions.
“We expect COVID-19 to remain a threat to populations worldwide until vaccines and therapeutics are widely distributed,” the report said. “The economic and political implications of the pandemic will ripple through the world for years,” the report said, noting that both China and Russia are “using offers of medical supplies and vaccines to try to boost their geopolitical standing.”
“The economic fallout from the pandemic is likely to create or worsen instability in at least a few — and perhaps many — countries, as people grow more desperate in the face of interlocking pressures that include sustained economic downturns, job losses, and disrupted supply chains.”
The intelligence report predicts that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia will continue using a variety of means to “undermine U.S. influence, develop new international norms and partnerships, divide Western countries and weaken Western alliances, and demonstrate Russia’s ability to shape global events as a major player in a new multipolar international order.”
The warning came on a day when tensions between the Kremlin and the West soared over a mounting standoff over a Russian military build-up across the border from Western-backed Ukraine.
“Russia will continue to develop its military, nuclear, space, cyber and intelligence capabilities, while actively engaging abroad and leveraging its energy resources, to advance its agenda and undermine the United States,” the report said.
Moscow is not seeking a direct conflict with American forces and prefers an accommodation with the United States on mutual non-interference in each state’s domestic affairs, along with American recognition of Moscow’s sphere of influence over the former Soviet Union. But Russia is also building new weapons that pose increased dangers to the U.S. despite flat defense spending.
Moscow’s cyberattacks also pose threats to U.S. critical infrastructures.
“We assess that Russia will remain a top cyber threat as it refines and employs its espionage, influence and attack capabilities,” the report said. “Russia continues to target critical infrastructure, including underwater cables and industrial control systems, in the United States and in allied and partner countries, as compromising such infrastructure improves — and in some cases can demonstrate — its ability to damage infrastructure during a crisis.”
On Iran, the DNI report supports the Biden administration’s effort to rejoin the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that President Trump repudiated in 2018.
“We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device,” the report said.
But after U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018, Iranian officials have abandoned some of the deals commitments and resume some banned nuclear activities to protest reimposed U.S. economic sanctions.
A top Iranian official said Tuesday Tehran was preparing to enrich uranium to a level of 60%, considerably closer to the level needed for a nuclear weapon, in response to a weekend attack sabotaging its Natanz nuclear site that has been widely attributed to Israel.
The DNI assessed that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will likely pursue aggressive and potentially destabilizing actions, including resumption of nuclear weapons and long-range missile testing.
“We assess that Kim views nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent against foreign intervention and believes that over time he will gain international acceptance and respect as a nuclear power,” the report said. North Korea’s expansion of conventional military capabilities pose “increasing threat” to the United States, South Korea and Japan.
“Pyongyang portrayed a growing and more diverse strategic and tactical ballistic missile force during its January 2021 and October 2020 military parades,” the report said.
Mr. Kim announced an end to its self-imposed moratorium on ICBM missile and nuclear weapons testing in December 2019, but the regime has not conducted a missile launch of a long-range missile.
The DNI stops short of adopting the Biden administration language on climate change as an “existential” national security threat, saying instead that “we assess that the effects of a changing climate and environmental degradation will create a mix of direct and indirect threats, including risks to the economy, heightened political volatility, human displacement, and new venues for geopolitical competition that will play out during the next decade and beyond.”