US spymasters see a clear and present threat from China. Image: Screengrab / CNN

More and more the United States views Russia’s war on Ukraine as a pivotal episode in a global contest that pits Washington not only against Moscow but against a group of active adversaries – with China at the group’s core.

At a briefing convened by the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee last week, China shared top billing with Russia and the conflict in Ukraine as a talking point. In particular, attention centered on China’s military plans vis-a-vis a possible takeover of Taiwan.

The two top intelligence agency heads – civilian and military – put China atop a list of four countries they viewed as effectively joined in an anti-Western crusade. China was followed by Russia, Iran and North Korea.

“All four governments have demonstrated the capacity and intend to promote their interests … that cut against US and allied interests,” Avril Haines, who oversees US intelligence agencies in President Joe Biden’s administration, said.

Director of US intelligence Avril Haines speaking before a Senate committee. Photo: AFP

Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, highlighted threats that he said emanated from each country: China’s threats against Taiwan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Iran’s proxy warfare in the Middle East and North Korea’s presumed dangers to the Western Pacific and western American mainland.

In the US view, an implicit duel – pitting China, Russia, Iran and North Korea against the US, NATO, the European Union and Japan – has the makings of global warfare.

Major democratic countries have yet to take sides. Haines singled out India, Indonesia, Nigeria, South Africa and some unnamed “Global South” countries as laggards.

“Much of the world is still not with us,” said Berrier. “They may not be with Russia, but they are not subscribing to our call for a global coalition of democracies.” He added, “The US still has very friendly relations with them, but we have not been able to get them to join the Ukrainian cause.”

Haines noted that Russia and China are trying to woo authoritarian, oil-rich United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia away from longstanding, close relations with the United States. The UAE is eyeing expanded energy and technology trade with China.

Saudi Arabia is unhappy both with US support for democracy promoted during Arab Spring protests of the 1990s and also with American outrage over the killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. His murder took place within a Saudi diplomatic compound in Turkey

Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have rebuffed the Biden administration’s calls for them to expand fossil fuel production in order to curb rising prices.

Some dictatorships have criticized Russia’s invasion, even if they have not joined in placing economic sanctions on Moscow. Former Soviet republic Uzbekistan is an example.

Senators took interest in the Ukraine war’s effect on China. They wondered whether  Beijing would invade Taiwan while the US and its allies are preoccupied with Ukraine.

The intelligence chiefs expressed optimism that China would make no moves in the short term. The Ukraine war may give China “less confidence” in a military outcome should Beijing invade Taiwan, Haines surmised.

The unified allied approaches to Ukraine including an array of economic sanctions is something Beijing “obviously will be looking at in the context of Taiwan,” she added.

“The intelligence agencies have not assessed that the Russia-Ukraine crisis is accelerating their plan vis-a-vis Taiwan,” Haines concluded.

Haines and Berrier both set 2027 as the year China believes it could successfully invade. However, they advised, Beijing might shorten the timetable. They counseled Taiwan to prepare better defenses by purchasing new arms and improving its military organization.

Iran and North Korea each made cameo appearances in the briefing. Senators queried whether the US focus on Ukraine might embolden either to take unexpected military action.

The intelligence chiefs suggested the US is on guard against such possibilities. “We’re always thinking about Iran and their actions,” Berrier said, “within the region against our neighbors and certainly our forces there.”

Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, pictured in 230l20 as he took over as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Photo: US Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chris Gaines

In addition, the US “is worried about North Korea, for sure,” Haines interjected. She pointed to Pyongyang’s “ballistic missile development timeline, as well as potential nuclear testing” as concerns.

Senators pressed Haines and Berrier to lay out their expectations about the future course of the Ukraine war, which is almost three months old. The Biden administration had predicted it would end with a Russian victory within a matter of a few weeks. That made some lawmakers skeptical about official predictions.

Berrier said the war had reached a stalemate. Haines said the conflict would become more and more “unpredictable,” but played down the likelihood that Putin would order the use of nuclear weapons to crush resistance.

There is no “imminent potential” for Russian leader Vladimir Putin to “use nuclear weapons,” she declared.

The future depends on Russia’s immediate strategy, Berrier said. “If Russia doesn’t declare war and mobilize, the stalemate is going to continue for a while,” he said.

If, on the other hand, Russia intensifies its ground assault, “That would bring thousands more soldiers … and a whole lot more ammunition to the fight.”

From the testimony, it was unclear who has more to fear from the outcome: the West, if Ukraine is defeated; or China, if its nominal ally Russia is routed.

The Biden administration is pouring billions of dollars worth of weaponry into the fray, as are European allies. Yet no one asked how Ukraine’s Western allies would respond if Russia indeed intensified the war and what it would cost.

Much less did anyone probe how China might react if Russia should find itself in danger of defeat, or for instance, whether Beijing would help if Moscow requested weapon supplies to fill depleted stocks.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.