- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2022

China is engaged in a massive nuclear weapons buildup that includes hundreds of new strategic missiles, and Chinese President Xi Jinping is preparing the military to retake Taiwan, the nation’s most senior intelligence official told Congress on Tuesday.

Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, and four other intelligence agency leaders disclosed new information on threats from China and dangers posed by Russia, North Korea and Iran at the annual briefing on threats to U.S. security around the globe.

China’s military buildup includes “the largest ever nuclear force expansion and arsenal diversification in its history,” Ms. Haines told a hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

The hearing and questions from committee members were dominated by Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, which has stalled in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance, and by increased fears of a nuclear exchange under Moscow’s doctrine of resorting to nuclear arms in a stalemate.

Russia’s invasion and subsequent Western sanctions also are driving Moscow closer to an alliance with China, the U.S. intelligence leaders said.

“I believe that it continues to be the case that they are getting closer together,” Ms. Haines said. “We see that across a range of sectors — economic, political, security and expect it to continue.” Bilateral cooperation is not unlimited, “but nevertheless, that remains a concern,” she said.

The Ukraine crisis could affect the ties. China has not criticized Russia for the military foray, but Beijing abstained on a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Kremlin’s military operation, leaving Russia as the only dissenting vote, Ms. Haines noted.

CIA Director William J. Burns, testifying along with Ms. Haines, said Chinese President Xi Jinping appears unhappy with the Russian military shortcomings on display in Ukraine. China is also unnerved that the invasion has driven the United States and Europe much closer together.

China “valued their relationship with Europe and valued what they believed to be their capacity to try to drive wedges between us and the Europeans,” Mr. Burns said.

Ms. Haines cited China’s nuclear force expansion as a prime cause for concern among U.S. intelligence analysts.

The annual intelligence threat report, made public for the hearing, said worries about Beijing’s nuclear expansion are compounded by China’s refusal to engage in arms reduction talks, fearing it will lock in the current U.S. and Russian advantages in the number of nuclear weapons.

China is building a larger and increasingly capable nuclear missile and bomber 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 strike capability in any scenario,” the report said, leaving China a “near-peer” competitor of the United States in the words of Ms. Haines.

The buildup includes silo fields in western China for “hundreds” of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. U.S. officials believe the missiles will be 10-warhead DF-41s with as many as 350 missiles — representing a breakout from an arsenal estimated to include roughly 250 warheads. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force in 2020 also deployed the nuclear-capable H-6N bomber, which is a new element of the Chinese nuclear triad of bombers, ICBMs and submarine-launched missiles.

Additionally, the report confirmed unofficial claims that China carried out a test of a strategic hypersonic glide vehicle that orbited Earth before landing back on Chinese soil.

Tensions on Taiwan

The intelligence chiefs said Taiwan is another flashpoint in bilateral relations. Mr. Xi and other Chinese leaders are determined to force unification with Taiwan on Beijing’s terms, including the possible use of military forces, they said.

China would prefer coerced unification that avoids armed conflict, and it has been stepping up diplomatic-economic-military pressure on the island for years to isolate and weaken confidence in its democratically elected leaders,” Ms. Haines said. “And at the same time, Beijing is preparing to use military force if it decides this is necessary.”

Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, rejected suggestions that Beijing would use Russia‘s Ukraine operation as a model for Taiwan.

“I think Taiwan and Ukraine are two different things completely,” said Gen. Berrier, adding that the U.S. military presence in Asia is a strong deterrent. “We do know that the PRC is watching very, very carefully what happens [in Ukraine] and how this plays out throughout the entire time.”

Ms. Haines said intelligence analysts believe China may be more fearful of taking military action against Taiwan based on the unified support for international sanctions on Russia since it invaded Ukraine.

Mr. Burns, however, cautioned that the problems Russia is facing in Ukraine are not likely to reduce Chinese leaders’ drive to get control of Taiwan.

“I would just say analytically, I would not underestimate President Xi and the Chinese leadership’s determination with regard to Taiwan,” Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Xi was “surprised and unsettled” by events in Ukraine during the conflict and the strong Western response.

“I think there’s an impact on the Chinese calculus with regard to Taiwan, which we obviously are going to continue to pay careful attention to,” Mr. Burns said.

The annual threat report said China is engaged in a systematic program to compel Taiwan and other states in the region to submit to China’s views on maritime claims and its sovereignty over Taiwan. Tensions across the 110-mile Taiwan Strait will increase as Chinese military forces step up provocative flights and naval deployments near the island and Taiwan resists.

Iran and North Korea

The intelligence survey said the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is steadily expanding and enhancing its nuclear and conventional military capabilities “targeting the United States and its allies.” Nuclear tests by the regime also could take place this year.

The report states that, in addition to nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, Pyongyang is building a hypersonic glide vehicle that can maneuver at speeds above 3,500 miles per hour in an effort to defeat missile defenses. North Korea claims to have tested a hypersonic missile in September and again in January.

Pyongyang also is expanding uranium enrichment and continuing plutonium production for its weapons.

“In January, North Korea began laying the groundwork for an increase in tensions that could include ICBM or possibly a nuclear test this year — actions that Pyongyang has not taken since 2017,” the report said.

Asked about the threat posed by Iran and whether lifting sanctions under a renewed nuclear deal will benefit Tehran, Gen. Berrier said, “We continue to see destabilizing actions” by the Iranians.

Additional funding that Iran could obtain under loosened sanctions in a revived nuclear deal with the Biden administration would assist the regime, which is supporting allies hostile to the U.S. in the Middle East and has purchased drones and other weapons despite sanctions.

“If they get more funding, I think the threat becomes even worse,” Gen. Berrier said.

The Biden administration is said to be close to a new nuclear agreement with Iran, with another round of talks underway this week in Vienna.

Ms. Haines said Iran continues to threaten U.S. interests and project power in the Middle East.

Reflecting the Biden administration’s assertions that climate change is a threat, the intelligence report said climate change could increase geopolitical tensions at domestic and cross-border flashpoints and in the Arctic.

The report stops short of asserting that climate change poses an “existential threat” to U.S. interests, as President Biden has said.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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