The era of US government policies designed to play down or dismiss growing strategic challenges from China seems to be ending.

For the first time in years, the nation’s most senior intelligence official revealed that China now poses a regional security threat engaged in hostile activities that blur the line between war and peace.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, testified before the US Senate that the threat from Beijing is not limited to the large-scale buildup of both strategic nuclear and conventional forces. It includes new forms of competition involving information operations, cyber attacks, intelligence activities and other non-kinetic forms of warfare.

Clapper testifies to Senate committee
Clapper testifies to Senate committee

Clapper warned that China, along with Russia, is challenging the US for regional power and influence in ways that will increase competition, especially in vital sea lanes in Asia where trillions of dollars of commerce could be threatened.

To avoid triggering a shooting war with US, the Chinese are engaging in new types of low-level conflict.

“They will almost certainly eschew direct military conflict with the US in favor of contests at lower levels of competition — to include the use of diplomatic and economic coercion, propaganda, cyber intrusions, proxies, and other indirect applications of military power — that intentionally blur the distinction between peace and wartime operations,” Clapper said of China and Russia in his prepared statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 9.

Harsher view of China

The assertion that China is blurring the line between war and peace in competing against the US received little attention. But it is the first time a public intelligence assessment so starkly cast China’s relations toward the United States in such a harsh light.

In his threat briefing testimony a year ago, Clapper made no similar assessment of growing US-China tensions.

The testimony stopped short of predicting a coming conflict with China and said there remain opportunities for cooperation. But even cooperation “will probably encourage ad-hoc approaches to global challenges that undermine existing international institutions,” he warned.


Reforms under Chinese leader Xi Jinping are aimed at bolstering rule by the Communist Party. However, Clapper said the anti-corruption drive that has brought down a significant number of senior Chinese leaders, including two military chiefs, is increasing the potential for “internal friction” in the party.

Marine Corps. Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, head of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, also provided a harsher assessment of the increasing threat from China than his past testimony.

The three-star general’s statement also included new signs of an increasing military threat from China. For years, military leaders insisted China’s large-scale military buildup was limited to preparing for a Taiwan conflict, should China decide to retake the island by force.

Chinese HQ-9 missile launcher
Chinese HQ-9 missile launcher recently deployed to Paracel Islands

Referring to the “massive” military reorganization of the People’s Liberation Army announced Dec. 31, Stewart warned that China’s military is “planning for US intervention” in conflicts not just over Taiwan, but also in the South China and East China Seas.“China has the world’s largest and most comprehensive missile force, and has prioritized the development and deployment of regional ballistic and cruise missiles to expand its conventional strike capabilities against US forces and bases throughout the region,” Stewart said, noting continued deployment of anti-ship ballistic missiles “to attack US aircraft carriers.”

Stewart also highlighted the space warfare threat posed by China that he said “possesses the world most rapidly-maturing space program” along with space weapons “designed to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries in a crisis or conflict.”

China’s intelligence activities are among the most aggressive, Stewart added, and “pose grave persistent threats” to the Pentagon. Chinese spying is the “most prolific, using a variety of techniques and resources to collect vast amounts of valuable sensitive and classified [Defense Department] information,” he said.

Neither the DNI nor DIA chief provided an explanation for the new and dire assessment of the challenges posed by China, and none of the senators at the hearing questioned them about it.

Chinese cyberattacks had impact

Chinese military cyber specialists
Chinese military cyber specialists

However, China’s actions in conducting large-scale cyber attacks against the US government’s Office of Personnel Management and military encroachment on disputed islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea were likely triggers.

Within the US government, intelligence and military officials have begun pushing back against the Obama administration’s agenda that sought to play down foreign national security threats, while focusing more on domestic issues.

For decades, public discussion of Chinese military and security threats by US officials was strictly limited, often relegated to what a State Department official likened to a game preserve. “We don’t hunt on the game preserve,” the official said.

The result has been several decades of public policies — from successive Republican and Democratic administrations — that sought to play down or dismiss completely alarming activities and behaviors of the Chinese government.

American government officials for years have adopted an array of Chinese-style maxims that dominated public discourse on China. They included the statement from the 1990s that “China is not a threat,” to the more recent iteration in the 2000s that “we want a strong China.”

The new assessments are sign that the policies of the US government toward China are hardening and will likely lead to concrete policy changes in the coming months.

Conciliatory US policies toward China were an outgrowth of the views of many US academics, public policymakers, intelligence officials and private business leaders who argued that any criticism of China, whether for its arms proliferation, human rights abuses or the military buildup, would upset trade ties and other economic relations.

The argument was made that trading with China through the years would have a moderating influence on the communist party-ruled system and ultimately produce western-style political and economic reforms.

The policies, however, so far have not produced the desired results.

The intelligence leaders’ testimony appears to signal the beginning of a new era of realism toward China.

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books, including iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age (Threshold Editions).

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