We are witnessing the resurgence of authoritarianism across the globe, and it poses a growing challenge to the very idea of liberal democracy. China, with its expanding economic, military, and diplomatic might, is at the forefront of this neoauthoritarian challenge. Beijing seeks to build a world in which its ambitions are unchallenged and individual freedoms give way to the needs of the state. The United States must rise to meet this challenge—and that task begins with understanding China’s intentions and capabilities.

The House Intelligence Committee has spent the last two years looking at whether our nation’s intelligence apparatus is properly focused, postured, and resourced to understand the many dimensions of the China threat and preparing to advise policymakers on how to respond. We conducted hundreds of hours of interviews, visited facilities operated by over a dozen intelligence agencies, and reviewed thousands of analytic assessments in order to produce a classified report with a public summary and recommendations.

What we found was unsettling. Our nation’s intelligence agencies are not ready—not by a long shot. Absent a significant realignment in resources and organization, the United States will be ill prepared to compete with China on the global stage for decades to come.

AMBITIOUS REJUVENATION

China’s rise as a global power has come startlingly fast, and its ambitions have grown even more quickly. The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party believe that they must restore China to its rightful place as the “Middle Kingdom” by achieving what CCP leadership terms the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Chinese President Xi Jinping has inextricably linked this concept to the development of a “world-class” military capable of defending China’s core interests, the achievement of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the elimination of “lax and weak governance” within the CCP itself. In addition to the domestic aspects of its self-proclaimed rejuvenation, Beijing increasingly sees itself as a preeminent power that can dictate terms to its neighbors to achieve its global ambitions. To that end, Beijing has erected an elaborate system of domestic control to maintain power and control information as they do so. This model of technology-driven totalitarianism has also become a growing Chinese export, enabling other would-be autocrats to follow the Chinese example.

The United States will be ill-prepared to compete with China on the global stage for decades to come.

The disturbing degree to which the Chinese government has developed a model of domestic repression is most evident in the western region of Xinjiang, where the Uighur population lives in a vast panopticon of constant surveillance and little contact with the outside world. Not content with mere control, Beijing has also sought to destroy Uighur religion, culture, and society and has erected concentration camps that hold millions of Uighurs in the worst human rights abuses of the twenty-first century. 

China itself views competition with the United States unfolding in ideological and zero-sum terms. It has sought to modernize the People’s Liberation Army and develop doctrine for new domains, such as space and cyber, that would redefine existing conceptions of how a twenty-first century war would unfold, extending the battlefield to our political discourse, mobile devices, and the very infrastructure that modern digital communication and communities rely upon. In that vein, we have also seen China seek to distort the stark reality of the coronavirus pandemic, preventing the world from learning about early indicators and pushing disinformation to blame anyone but themselves for the start and rapid spread of the virus.

A NECESSARY REALIGNMENT 

For the United States to effectively anticipate and respond, we will need the expertise of our intelligence agencies. But as our review found, the intelligence community’s focus and expertise on China is lacking. After 9/11, the United States and its intelligence agencies rapidly reoriented toward a counterterrorism mission to protect the homeland. Although those moves were both necessary and largely successful, our abilities and resources devoted to other priority missions—such as China—waned. In the interim, China has transformed itself into a nation potentially capable of supplanting the United States as the leading power in the world. In tandem with this transformation, Beijing’s increasing control of the domestic information environment and opaque decision-making process has continued to vex U.S. leaders seeking to develop sound and impactful policy toward China.

Going forward, if we fail to accurately predict and characterize Beijing’s intent, we will continue to struggle to understand how and why the leadership of the CCP makes decisions and fail to respond effectively. The good news is that we still have time to change course.

First, our intelligence agencies need to significantly realign resources and personnel to meet the challenge that China poses, quickly and across almost every single agency. China cannot be viewed just through an Asia-specific lens but instead must be integrated throughout the intelligence enterprise and its functional missions. This is especially true when it comes to our ability to provide analysis and warnings on “soft” threats such as pandemics, climate change, and economic trends, which recent experience has shown can have immense consequences for national security. As the intelligence community prioritizes analytic questions related to China, it must focus on the areas of competition that will enable the United States to succeed.

Second, intelligence agencies must do a better job of adapting to the sheer amount of open-source data available to them about global threats and competitors and to quickly get the resulting intelligence to decision-makers. Given the increasing pace of global events, driven partly by social media and mobile communications, we need to quickly adapt and modernize. That means properly utilizing artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze data to find what we need to make decisions quickly. An external organization should be tasked with conducting a study on the intelligence community’s prosecution of the open-source intelligence mission and make formal recommendations to streamline and strengthen its governance and capabilities. Similarly, the intelligence community should prioritize transferring successful start-up initiatives to long-term sustainment at the earliest possible date, protecting dedicated funding for future innovation whenever possible.  

Third, we need to change how we view the threat from China. Beijing presents not only a military threat but also economic, technological, health, and counterintelligence threats. Addressing these dimensions of the challenge will require a significant realignment of the types of individuals and skill sets we recruit, retain, invest in, and grant security clearances to, including through hiring analysts with nontraditional backgrounds in technology and science. The intelligence community should expand its practice of hiring technical experts, such as trained health professionals, economists, and technologists, to serve throughout its analytic corps. It should also formalize and broaden programs designed to hire and mentor the next generation of China analysts. That is also why we should adopt one of the best lessons from our counterterrorism mission and embed real-time intelligence support on China within different agencies—especially those outside the Defense Department, such at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Department of Commerce, and science and health agencies, which are often on the frontlines of this new multidimensional struggle.

The United States cannot give up on global leadership.

The intelligence community must also continue to prioritize the counterintelligence challenge that China poses. Beyond the known threat emanating from China’s intelligence services, there are a range of Chinese influence actors and operations, many of which are funded and organized by the CCP’s United Front Work Department. According to the Department of Defense’s 2019 China Military Power Report, Chinese influence efforts have targeted cultural institutions, state- and municipal-level government offices, media organizations, educational institutions, businesses, think tanks, and policy communities. The U.S. government must strengthen its ability to categorize, disrupt, and deter such Chinese influence operations occurring on U.S. soil.  

It has become all too clear that the United States cannot give up on global leadership, because if it does, China will gladly step into the breach with its own malign intentions. Even as we contend with the threat from China, we must dramatically increase our own engagement with the rest of the world, including by championing democracy and human rights.

Yet for all the talk in Washington about the need to be “tough on China,” there has been scant action within the U.S. intelligence community—because action, unlike talk, requires hard choices about funding and priorities. But these are not choices we should shrink from. We have to face them before it is too late to act, because unless our intelligence apparatus has its eyes squarely trained on Beijing’s malevolent activity around the world, it is not just our national security that will suffer—so will our economy, health security, and technological edge.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ADAM B. SCHIFF serves as the Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and represents California’s 28th Congressional District.
  • More By Adam Schiff