The Trump administration’s most senior intelligence official issued a stark warning Thursday that China is preparing for “an open-ended period of confrontation with the US,” urging bipartisan action to address “the greatest threat to America today” and to “democracy around the world since World War II.”
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe also charged in a new Wall Street Journal op-ed that China targeted several dozen members of Congress and congressional aides in a massive influence campaign this year.
Ratcliffe’s piece was just the latest warning from senior administration officials about China’s intentions, with some warning of possible military action in Asia and others pointing to unprecedented efforts to influence the incoming Biden administration.
The op-ed comes as the Trump administration has recently taken several concrete measures against Beijing, sharply limiting visas for members of the Chinese Communist Party and unveiling new sanctions on Chinese companies.
The Trump administration also ordered China to close their consulate in Houston earlier this year due to allegations that Chinese diplomats at the post were intimidating US citizens and carrying out espionage efforts. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this year defined the Chinese Communist Party as the “central threat of our times.”
Ratcliffe struck a more urgent tone Thursday than in previous comments, underscoring the fact that he and other senior national security officials in the Trump administration are seeking to put a marker down on China in their final days on the job.
“This generation will be judged by its response to China’s effort to reshape the world in its own image and replace America as the dominant superpower. The intelligence is clear. Our response must be as well,” Ratcliffe wrote.
“Beijing is preparing for an open-ended period of confrontation with the U.S. Washington should also be prepared. Leaders must work across partisan divides to understand the threat, speak about it openly, and take action to address it,” he added.
One senior national security official told CNN that the op-ed is part of a broader, administration-wide China push before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in.
That effort is motivated, in part, by a desire to make it more difficult for the Biden administration to unwind current policies, but also by the belief that these warnings about China will be proven true in the future, the official said.
Tough on China but not like Trump?
Sources familiar with Biden’s foreign policy plans say the President-elect is well aware of the challenge Beijing presents, but believes Trump’s approach – particularly taking action without consulting allies – has undermined the ultimate goal of competing with China.
Top Democrats in Congress have also urged members of the Biden team, including his pick to replace Ratcliffe as DNI, to take a tough stance on China, but adopt a different approach than that of the Trump administration.
“I urged the incoming Biden administration to be tough on China, but in a much smarter, multilateral way than the Trump administration was, so that American workers aren’t left behind and so the US leads in critical industries like semiconductors, quantum computing, and clean energy,” Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer said earlier this week after meeting with Biden’s choice for DNI Avril Haines.
Biden has said there are areas where it is in the US interest to work with China, including on climate change and North Korea, but his advisers stress that he will work closely with allies to present a united front on issues such as technology, including Huawei and 5G, intellectual property theft and China’s expansion in Asian waters and its moves to crush democracy in Hong Kong.
It remains to be seen how Biden will deal with China but the recent warnings from outgoing Trump officials could increase pressure on him to prioritize holding Beijing accountable or, at very least, complicate the calculus on certain issues.
For example, Ratcliffe argued Thursday that the time for convincing allies to voluntarily join the US in presenting a united front when it comes to 5G may have passed and suggested the situation demanded the Trump administration take a more forceful approach.
“China’s efforts to dominate 5G telecommunications will only increase Beijing’s opportunities to collect intelligence, disrupt communications and threaten user privacy world-wide. I have personally told US allies that using such Chinese-owned technology will severely limit America’s ability to share vital intelligence with them,” he said.
“The world is being presented a choice between two wholly incompatible ideologies. China’s leaders seek to subordinate the rights of the individual to the will of the Communist Party. They exert government control over companies and subvert the privacy and freedom of their citizens with an authoritarian surveillance state,” he added.
Ratcliffe’s claim that China has become increasingly aggressive in targeting US lawmakers as it seeks to influence American politics from the inside could also hinder the Biden administration’s prospects for diplomatic cooperation with Beijing in other areas.
Specifically, Ratcliffe said Thursday that the Chinese government “engaged in a massive influence campaign that included targeting several dozen members of Congress and congressional aides” over the last year – arguing that Beijing’s efforts dwarfed those of other foreign adversaries and rivals, including Russia.
While the precise details of this influence campaign remain highly classified, a senior national security official told CNN that the Chinese government used a variety of tactics, including attempted bribery and blackmail.
“Our intelligence shows that Beijing regularly directs this type of influence operation in the U.S. I briefed the House and Senate Intelligence committees that China is targeting members of Congress with six times the frequency of Russia and 12 times the frequency of Iran,” Ratcliffe wrote in Thursday’s op-ed.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government has also been “re-vectoring” its influence efforts towards officials with the incoming Biden administration and those around them, the top US counterintelligence official, Bill Evanina said Wednesday.
Evanina, the director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center, called the efforts “diplomatic influence plus, or on steroids,” saying the shift was expected.
“We’re starting to see that play [out] across the country, to not only the folks that are in the new admin but those who are around those folks in the new (administration),” Evanina said during his conversation on China at the Aspen Cyber Summit. The goal is to make sure those in the new administration “know what it looks like, what it tastes like, what it feels like when you see it.”
Increasing tensions between Washington and Beijing
Other agencies within the Trump administration have also taken recent steps that will ratchet up tensions between Washington and Beijing.
The State Department is imposing new restrictions on travel visas to the United States for members of the Chinese Communist Party, a State Department spokesperson confirmed Thursday.
Under the new rules, the travel visas of CCP members and their immediate family members will change from 10 years to one month and will be single entry.
The US is also closely watching the ramp up of Chinese military activity around Taiwan, another potential flash point that could pose problems for the Biden administration if it continues to escalate.
“We are watching very closely and would be ready for anything including a grave miscalculation by the PRC,” a senior administration official told CNN. “We’re definitely watching them.”
“Sooner or later they’re willing to push things to a boiling point over Taiwan as they did in Hong Kong and on border with India. It’s coming,” the official added.
Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are now receiving the same classified intelligence briefings as President Donald Trump, meaning they have access to the full range of underlying information about China’s actions.
But at the same time, Biden and Harris can only watch from the sidelines until they are sworn in and will inherit the fallout of whatever actions the Trump administration takes between now and Inauguration Day.
CNN’s Alex Marquardt, Jim Sciutto, Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler contributed reporting