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China, Russia and climate change: 2023 threat assessment sees U.S. faced with unprecedented challenges

The United States “will confront a complex and pivotal international security environment," the assessment concluded.

From left to right, FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Scott Berrier

WASHINGTON — Having stood as the world’s lone superpower since the end of the Cold War, the United States now faces unprecedented challenges to its global influence, the intelligence community concluded in the annual threat assessment made public this week.

Those threats include, above all, an ascendant China, but also a belligerent Russia whose invasion of Ukraine could be part of a broader regional plan. Then there are the worldwide consequences of climate change and technological advancements in artificial intelligence, which will require cooperation on an unprecedented scale.

As the war in eastern Ukraine continues into its second year and Xi Jinping solidifies power in his third term as China’s leader, the United States “will confront a complex and pivotal international security environment,” the assessment concludes.

China

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping, president of China and also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee. (Li Gang/Xinhua via Getty Images)

The Chinese Communist Party “represents both the leading and most consequential threat to U.S. national security and leadership globally,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers this week.

The 2023 threat assessment — which her office produced — concludes that while China does not seek an outright military confrontation with the United States, deepening competition is inevitable.

“Beijing sees increasingly competitive U.S.–China relations as part of an epochal geopolitical shift and views Washington’s diplomatic, economic, military, and technological measures against Beijing as part of a broader U.S. effort to prevent China’s rise and undermine CCP rule,” the threat assessment says.

Both the White House and Congress have focused on China in recent months. Committees are investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and legislators seeking to ban TikTok, a social media platform whose parent company Bytedance is believed to be improperly harvesting users’ data.

The recent shoot down of a Chinese surveillance balloon only deepened suspicions between Washington and Beijing, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly canceling a visit to the Chinese capital.

But no issues looms as large as that of Taiwan, the island whose contested status could become a military flashpoint.

“They’re understating the threat — and the very real possibility of war,” China expert Isaac Stone Fish told Yahoo News of the 2023 threat assessment. “There's a real lack of discussion of what happens if China invades Taiwan. Is that World War III?”

According to the so-called Davidson Window, an analysis developed by retired Navy Adm. Philip Davidson, China is likely to invade Taiwan by 2027. Biden has twice pledged to defend Taiwan militarily in what some deemed an irresponsible provocation to Beijing, which like Moscow tends to bristle at Western meddling in what it considers its own sphere of influence.

In testimony before the House on Thursday, Haines said that Xi had been “sobered” by the breadth and consistency of the Western alliance defending Ukraine. But Stone Fish believes the comparison does not hold.

“They’re radically different situations,” he said. “Russia is a declining power; China is not.”

Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. (Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

“The Russia section has few surprises, given how much about Russia-Ukraine has been put out publicly already,” former Central Intelligence Agency officer and visiting George Mason University scholar David Priess wrote on Twitter, though he highlighted a passage predicting that Russia would “become even more reliant on nuclear, cyber, and space capabilities as it deals with the extensive damage to Russia’s ground forces.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made nuclear threats several times since launching the invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, but most analysts do not believe those threats suggest a genuine intention to instigate a nuclear strike.

Still, as the assessment noted, Russian motives and tactics can be difficult to predict. And anti-Western grievances run deep.

“Russia probably does not want a direct military conflict with U.S. and NATO forces, but there is potential for that to occur,” the report says. “Russian leaders thus far have avoided taking actions that would broaden the Ukraine conflict beyond Ukraine’s borders, but the risk for escalation remains significant.”

Extremists at home

Proud Boys march
Far-right extremist Proud Boys march in support of President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., Dec. 12, 2020. (Evelyn Hockstein/Washington Post via Getty Images)

In recent years, intelligence experts have concluded that homegrown extremists — fueled in particular by far-right white supremacist ideology — pose a greater threat to the American mainland than foreign terrorist groups.

The 2023 threat assessment confirms those findings, describing “a decentralized movement of adherents to an ideology that espouses the use of violence to advance white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other exclusionary cultural-nationalist beliefs. These actors increasingly seek to sow social divisions, support fascist-style governments, and attack government institutions.”

The findings elicited a show of incredulity from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

“Are you serious?” he asked of Haines during a Wednesday hearing, seemingly unaware that an identical assessment of the homegrown threat had been made during the Trump administration.

A warming, increasingly digitized planet

A forest is incinerated by the Oak Fire
The Oak Fire near Midpines in Northern California, on July 23, 2022. (David McNew/AFP via Getty Images)

While the assessment calls China and Russia the biggest geopolitical threats the United States will have to manage in 2023, they are far from the only ones.

Climate change is putting an ever-growing number of people “under threat from extreme weather, food insecurity, and humanitarian disasters, fueling migration flows and increasing the risks of future pandemics as pathogens exploit the changing environment,” according to the assessment.

And while the coronavirus pandemic may be receding, conditions are only becoming more ripe for another outbreak: “Countries globally remain vulnerable to the emergence or introduction of a novel pathogen that could cause a devastating new pandemic.”

There are technological perils too. The assessment says that advances in artificial intelligence could leave the United States exposed, with foreign “intelligence services ... adopting cutting-edge technologies — from advanced cyber tools to unmanned systems to enhanced technical surveillance equipment — that improve their capabilities and challenge U.S. defenses.”