China is emerging as the United States' number one threat to national security

Late last year, former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe wrote an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal urging Americans to wake up to what he called the “greatest threat to democracy and freedom worldwide since World War II,” China. While Trump’s trade war with China has gained much attention, Ratcliffe urged the US to wake up to threats posed by China including intellectual property theft, public influence campaigns, and espionage. His article echoed growing concerns inside the US government regarding the rise of China, which has led the US to accelerate an ongoing pivot towards China and away from the Middle East, which has preoccupied the attention of the US for much of the twenty-first century.  

 In the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), former Secretary of Defense James Mattis wrote that the central challenge posed to US national security is the reemergence of long-term competition with a revisionist power, namely China, denoting a redirection of the US’s focus after having troops deployed in the Middle East for nearly two decades. The chief cause of concern, according to Mattis, is China’s use of its modernized military, political influence operations, and predatory economics to undermine the rules-based order led by the US since the end of the Cold War. He writes that while the US previously enjoyed superiority in air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace, China now rivals America on each front. Failure to rise to the Chinese threat, Mattis writes, will result in “decreasing U.S. global influence, eroding cohesion among allies and partners, and reduced access to markets that will contribute to a decline in our prosperity and standard of living.” To counter the Chinese threat, Mattis recommends that the US build a more “more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force, combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners.”

Aggression in the South China Sea

In response to the 2018 NDS and the emergence of a near-peer conflict with China, in March 2020, General David Berger, the Commandant of the US Marine Corps, published “Force Design 2030,” a plan for deterring Chinese aggression in the South China and East China seas. After conducting war games over the span of five years, Berger concluded that the Marine Corps must restructure its organization and redefine its purpose in order to adapt to new threats. Departing from its focus on inland capabilities, Berger’s Marine Corps would redirect resources to strengthen its littoral capabilities and work more closely with the Navy. He stressed the need to reduce the branch’s footprint, demanding more “high-speed, long-range, low signature” amphibious craft and suggested that Marines operate in smaller units in order to “maneuver across the seaward and landward portions of complex littorals.” 

Berger’s suggestions may be becoming more salient as tensions between the US and China continue to rise under the tenure of President Biden, who invited Taiwan’s top representative in Washington DC to his inauguration, the first time a president has done so since the US and China established formal relations with China in 1979. In response, from 23-24 January, China flew twenty-eight sorties into Taiwanese air space despite warnings from the US Department of State against exerting economic, military, and diplomatic pressure against Taiwan. On 23 January, the US-Indo-Pacific Command said that the “Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group entered the South China Sea” to conduct routine operations and to ensure “free and open access to the seas.”  

Intellectual Property Theft and Espionage

As China and the US’s respective militaries vie for dominance in the South China Sea, the two countries are also engaged in economic and technological competition. Ratcliffe claims in his op-ed that China “robs, replicates, and replaces” American intellectual property (IP), citing the case of Sinovel, a Chinese wind-turbine company “guilty of stealing trade secrets from American Superconductor.” The theft, Ratcliffe writes, cost the US company over $1 billion and forced it to lay off 700 employees. IP theft has been a source of tension between the US and China, with Foreign Policy, estimating its cost to the US to be between $225 billion to $600 billion per year or $685 to $1828 per capita. Accusing the Chinese of IP theft in July of last year, the State Department shut China’s consulate in Houston, Texas, a move that China’s foreign spokeswoman described as “unbelievably ridiculous.”

The US also uncovered a large scale Chinese espionage operation last summer after the FBI arrested several Chinese researchers with ties to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). According to John Demers, the head of the Department of Justice’s national security division, those arrested “were just the tip of the iceberg” and that after the FBI interviewed with other suspects, “more than 1,000 PLA-affiliated researchers left the country.” According to The Atlantic, China and the US are engaged in a “growing intelligence war,” one in which China’s intelligence officers are “more sophisticated” and have more powerful tools at their disposal.  

Election Influence Campaigns

Over the past several years, China has also conducted influence campaigns targeting American elections and officials, including President Biden’s administration. In 2018, China waged what US National Security Officials called an unprecedented campaign to influence American public opinion before the November midterm elections.  Similarly, last December, former Director of National Intelligence William Evanina William Evanina said that China attempted to undermine US efforts at developing a coronavirus vaccine and targeted the November elections, amounting to an influence campaign “on steroids.” According to a statement made by Evanina last August, China boosted influence efforts ahead of the election in order to prevent Trump from winning a second term because Beijing sees him as unpredictable. 

The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated the deterioration of US-China relations and as the US struggles with well over 400,000 deaths, China has fared comparatively well, reporting just under 5,000. Both President Trump and President Xi Jinping blamed each other’s countries for spreading the virus. From an economic standpoint, China is also outperforming the US, posting 2.3% GDP growth in 2020 compared to the US’s negative 3.6%. According to a report written by the World Economic Forum, the pandemic “intensified rivalry between the United States and China” and that while the two countries may be able to cooperate on issues such as climate change, competition is likely to endure in the long term. In a November 2020 interview with Bloomberg, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger urged then President-elect Biden to repair relations with China. Failure to do so, Kissinger said, will lead the world “into a catastrophe comparable to World War I.”