The goal of China's influence operations around the world is to replace the United States as the world's leading superpower, the CIA's Michael Collins said Friday.
Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum during a session on the rise of China, Collins, the deputy assistant director of the CIA's East Asia Mission Center, said Chinese President Xi Jinping and his regime are waging a "cold war" against the US.
"By their own terms and what Xi enunciates I would argue by definition what they're waging against us is fundamentally a cold war, a cold war not like we saw during the Cold War, but a cold war by definition. A country that exploits all avenues of power licit and illicit, public and private, economic and military, to undermine the standing of your rival relative to your own standing without resorting to conflict. The Chinese do not want conflict," Collins said.
"At the end of the day they want every country around the world, when it's deciding its interests on policy issues, to first and foremost side with China and not the United States, because the Chinese are increasingly defining a conflict with the United States and what we stand behind as a systems conflict."
By looking at the writings of Xi, whose "thought" or world view was recently enshrined in China's constitution, it's clear, Collins says, that the threat China presents is the greatest global challenge the US currently faces.
"It sets up a competition with us and what we stand behind far more significantly by any extreme than what the Russians could put forward," Collins said.
Collins' comments on the third day of the forum echoed those of other senior US officials there, including FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who both pointed to China as the most significant danger for the US today.
"I think China, from a counterintelligence perspective, in many ways represents the broadest, most challenging, most significant threat we face as a country," Wray had told his audience on Wednesday.
"And I say that because for them it is a whole of state effort. It is economic espionage as well as traditional espionage; it is nontraditional collectors as well as traditional intelligence operatives; it's human sources as well as cyber means."
Coats said Thursday that the US needed to decide if China was a "true adversary or a legitimate competitor." He criticized Chinese state efforts to steal business secrets and academic research. "I think that's where we begin to draw the line," he said.
China's growing defense posture
Marcel Lettre, a former undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said that influence operations -- in which the ruling Communist Party uses political, financial and military strategies to establish and solidify its presence in countries in its region and beyond -- were only one tool China deploys as part of a larger effort to expand and grow.
"It's a country that has the second largest global defense budget, the largest standing army of ground forces, the third largest air force in the world, a navy of 300 ships -- including more than 60 subs -- all of this is in the process of being modernized and upgraded," he said, adding that those upgrades were "oriented around the innovations we've been taking on the US side for the last decade or two."
China unveiled its first homegrown carrier, a 50,000-ton ship, in May. The carrier's maiden sea trial followed a speech by Xi on April 12 in which he announced plans to build a "world-class" navy under the banner of the Chinese Communist Party. While the new carrier will enhance China's military power in the region, experts said it was still outdated and lagged far behind the standard of American aircraft carriers.
At the same time, China has established ports along the Indian Ocean that extend to Djibouti, where last year it dispatched two warships carrying an undisclosed number of troops to its first overseas military base.
Susan Thornton, who serves as the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, pointed to the impasse in the South China Sea as an area where the US presence might press Beijing to negotiate with other nations in the region that claim territory in the disputed waters.
In recent years, the Chinese government has built a number of artificial islands in the South China Sea with military installations, including radar facilities and airstrips. Beijing asserts that much of the South China Sea is its sovereign territory, claims most of the internationally community view as spurious.
"Will China be bound by rules and will it negotiate with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) multilateral partners or will it try to pick off one by one each individual and get more leverage that way?" she asked.
Thornton, who was initially President Donald Trump's nominee for the assistant secretary position, resigned in June when she was notified she was no longer his choice. She told Friday's audience that her service would conclude at the end of the panel discussion.
'Our soft power is ... more powerful than their soft power'
Part of Trump's new national security strategy announced in December includes moves to combat China on the technological and cyber fronts, but also to work with partners around the world to contest Chinese practices and persuade Beijing to agree to international conventions and standards.
While much of the world's attention has been focused on crises including the terror attacks of 9/11, the Chinese have maintained a singular focus for years.
"They are learning to be more coercive, learning to be more aspirational, learning to be more assertive by what they're getting away with," said the CIA's Collins. "9/11 is one example where the international community had to shift its attention to something else and the Chinese drove through that decade to especially expand where they are, so it's a long way of saying that there are things that happened in the international system, things that ... helped to explain to some degree the speed and expanse of where the Chinese have gotten to where they are today."
Both Thornton and Collins pointed to events over the past decade to partly explain China's rapid expansion and growth.
"The Chinese are very good at taking advantage of opportunities, which they may have been able to do in the recent past with our focus on the Middle East for the first part of the 2000s and following that the financial crisis," Thornton said. "We have to get back to doing what we do well. Our soft power is incredibly more powerful than their soft power. They don't really have that same kind of attractiveness that the US system has, and I think that's because our partners around the world know we stand by them and know we won't impose our will on them, that we'll work together with them."
Collins said that even China's partners would not want to subscribe to the country's way of life.
"I too am optimistic that in the battle for norms and rules and standards of behavior, that the liberal national order is stronger than the repressive standards that the Chinese promulgate," he said. "I'm confident others won't want to subscribe to that."