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Intelligence Report Highlights China as a ‘Near-Peer’ Competitor to US

Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: April 21, 2021
The People's Republic of China destroyer Harbin (DD 112) pulls into San Diego, Calif., on March 21, 1997, for a first-ever visit by a PRC ship to the mainland U.S. (Image: DoD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Felix Garza, U. S. Navy)

A recent report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has warned that China is a “near-peer” competitor to the United States and is challenging Washington in many areas. While pointing out that Beijing’s growing influence represents one of the biggest threats facing America, the report predicts that gray-zone battles for power will intensify between the two nations via cyberattacks, intelligence operations, and influence expansion. However, the gray-zone battles are not expected to incite an all-out war.

In terms of regional activities, China is predicted to continue its attempt to intimidate rivals in the South China Sea. In addition to putting pressure on Southeast Asian nations to accept Chinese dominance, Beijing will also try to stake claims over contested waters near Japan. It will pressure Taiwanese authorities to move towards peaceful unification. The report foresees tensions between the two to keep rising as China attempts to isolate the island nation internationally.

In an interview with Nikkei Asia, Rachel Esplin Odell, a research fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute, stated that China is not likely to make a military move against Taiwan as long as the latter does not intend to declare independence. 

“Attitudes in Taiwan toward unification have soured in recent years, while attitudes favoring eventual independence have strengthened. But the majority of people in Taiwan favor some maintenance of the status quo, even if more of them now want eventual independence… With what’s happened in Hong Kong, “one country, two systems” is no longer viable in the minds of Taiwan’s people. That framework is a non-starter now, so I think China, if they really want a peaceful “reunification,” should think more about how to adjust their strategy and engage more with the DPP,” she told Nikkei Asia.

The report expects the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to continue expanding overseas military installations and boost its ability to project power abroad. The PLA’s Air Force and Naval divisions are the largest in the region while Rocket Force’s accurate short, medium, and intermediate-range systems are said to be capable of countering the U.S. bases in the region. China is also building a nuclear missile force that features intercontinental second-strike capability. Beijing is looking to double its stockpile of nuclear weapons over the next ten years and also field a nuclear triad.

In space, China will succeed in building a Low Earth Orbit space station by 2022 to 2024. It also has plans for setting up a crewed base on the moon. As part of its counterspace operations, Beijing is training the military in ground and space-based anti-satellite weapons. In terms of cyber warfare, the report admits that China has the ability to cause temporary disruptions to critical infrastructure at a local level in the United States, and Beijing conducts cyber intrusions which affect American citizens.

Threats from Russia, Iran, and North Korea

The report also speaks about the threats posed by Russia, North Korea, and Iran. Moscow has expanded influence in South America by engaging with Venezuela, supporting Cuba, and using arms sales as well as energy agreements to access the natural resources of the region. In North Africa and the Middle East, Russia is positioning itself as a mediator in countries like Libya and Syria, undercutting American influence. Russia is also targeting America’s industrial control systems as well as underwater cables.

North Korea has been highlighted as posing an increasing threat to the United States, Japan, and South Korea. The report warns that North Korea will remain a WMD threat for the near future since Kim Jong-un is strongly committed to the country’s nuclear program. To fund the government’s nuclear and missile activities, North Korea reportedly conducted cyber theft on cryptocurrency exchanges and financial institutions.

With regards to Iran, nuclear weapons remain a key issue. The report warns that if sanctions against Iran are not relaxed, officials might consider enriching uranium up to 60 percent, thus bringing it closer to the necessary purity for weapon creation. The country may even design a new 40MW Heavy Water reactor. In fact, the Iranian government has recently announced its decision to produce 60 percent enriched uranium following an Israeli attack. 

The governments of Germany, France, and the UK have called the decision a serious development. “Iran’s announcements are particularly regrettable given they come at a time when all JCPoA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) participants and the United States have started substantive discussions, with the objective of finding a rapid diplomatic solution to revitalize and restore the JCPoA… Iran’s dangerous recent communication is contrary to the constructive spirit and good faith of these discussions,” the three nations said in a statement.

The pandemic factor

The DNI report predicts COVID-19 to remain a major global threat unless people across the world are vaccinated. Governments of countries like China and Russia are utilizing the pandemic to expand their geopolitical standing by offering vaccines and medical supplies to other nations. Any economic recovery for this year could easily be disrupted by a resurgence of the pandemic. Poorer nations are taking the biggest hit due to the viral outbreak.

The number of people suffering from high levels of food insecurity rose from 135 million in 2019 to 270 million in 2020. By the end of this year, the number is expected to touch 330 million. Peacemaking missions, counterterrorism operations, arms control measures, etc. have all been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, making it even more difficult to manage conflict.

“The pandemic has disrupted HIV / AIDS treatments and preventative measures in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as measles and polio vaccination campaigns in dozens of countries. World populations, including Americans, will remain vulnerable to new outbreaks of infectious diseases as risk factors persist, such as rapid and unplanned urbanization, protracted conflict and humanitarian crises, human incursions into previously unsettled land, expansion of international travel and trade, and public mistrust of government and health care workers,” according to the report.