US intelligence head says China is America’s ‘greatest threat’ in rare public warning

Robert Delaney
·4-min read

Top US government officials issued stark warnings about China on Thursday, with the head of Washington’s intelligence community calling China America’s “greatest threat” and the Pentagon’s top general saying that the US must boost its technological prowess to defend against Beijing’s efforts to “dominate” US military forces.

“I am entrusted with access to more intelligence than any member of the US government other than the president,” Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, said in an opinion piece published by The Wall Street Journal, a rare public warning from his office.

“The People’s Republic of China poses the greatest threat to America today, and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom worldwide since World War II.

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“Beijing intends to dominate the US and the rest of the planet economically, militarily and technologically,” Ratcliffe added. “Many of China’s major public initiatives and prominent companies offer only a layer of camouflage to the activities of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Using similar language at the US Naval Institute‘s online Defense Forum to characterise the military threat that China poses, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley said the country “would like to not only match us but exceed us, dominate us, be able to beat us in armed conflict by mid-century”.

Ratcliffe cited cases of industrial espionage and referenced alleged payments that the Chinese government made to Charles Lieber, the indicted former chairman of Harvard University’s chemistry department, as evidence of a wide-ranging effort to “rob, replicate and replace” American companies, resulting in damages equivalent to as much as US$500 billion a year.

The comments by America’s top intelligence official come as US courts work through dozens of indictments that the Justice Department has brought against Chinese researchers in the country in addition to Lieber.

John Demers, chief of the US Justice Department’s National Security Division, said in a discussion hosted by the Aspen Institute think tank on Wednesday that more than 1,000 Chinese researchers have left the US amid his department’s initiative to uncover espionage emanating from Beijing.

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In another case involving Harvard this week, a Chinese researcher accused of trying to smuggle 21 vials of cancer cells taken from a Boston hospital agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and will be permitted to return to China.

Ratcliffe, who will likely be replaced next month by President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, said that he has personally warned Washington’s allies that the usage of telecommunications equipment by Huawei Technologies Co. and other Chinese 5G equipment makers give Beijing “opportunities to collect intelligence”.

The Chinese government’s intelligence functionaries “use their access to tech firms such as Huawei to enable malicious activities, including the introduction of vulnerabilities into software and equipment”, Ratcliffe said, adding that usage of Chinese 5G systems “will severely limit America’s ability to share vital intelligence”.

Under new rules issued by the US Commerce Department in August that build on similar restrictions issued earlier this year, any company that sells Huawei products made anywhere with US technology will require a licence.

Asked about national security concerns on Tuesday in an annual China conference organised by the South China Morning Post, Donald Morrissey, Huawei’s vice-president of government relations denied that the company would violate the laws of the countries in which its customers operate.

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China’s national security law “does not reach out to Huawei’s customers in Europe or the United States or anywhere else”, Morrisey said. “If that were to happen, and be detected … it would destroy a basically US$122 billion company overnight”.

On the diplomatic front, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this year ordered senior Chinese diplomats based in the US to seek his department’s permission before meeting with local government officials or visiting American university campuses.

A representative of Beijing’s embassy in Washington called Ratcliffe’s comments “fact-distorting” and part of US government attempts to contain China.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley gives remarks during the 19th annual September 11 observance ceremony at the Pentagon. Photo: Reuters
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley gives remarks during the 19th annual September 11 observance ceremony at the Pentagon. Photo: Reuters

Ratcliffe “is well aware that it is the US government and relevant companies that have been for a long time mounting a large-scale, organized and indiscriminate cyber theft, surveillance and attack,” the representative said. “It is nothing secret that no one deserves the title of Empire of Hacking and Spying better than the US.”

Milley said the US military must embrace robotics and artificial intelligence more fully, and boost its naval fleet to more than 500 vessels by 2045, from around 300 currently.

At least one quarter of these vessels should be unmanned, robotic ships, and as many as 90 submarines, he said.

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