Out competing China will be key to America's national security in the decades ahead, President Joe Biden's pick to lead the CIA has told lawmakers, stressing that Beijing is the "biggest geopolitical test" that the US will face.
Willian Burns, 64, a former diplomat who served in Russia and the Middle East, shared the assessment with members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday for the post of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director.
Out competing China will be key to our national security in the decades ahead. That will require a long-term clear eyed bipartisan strategy underpinned by domestic renewal and solid intelligence, Burns said.
There will be areas in which it will be in our mutual self-interest to work with China from climate change to nonproliferation. And I am very mindful that (President) Xi Jinping's China is not without problems and frailties of its own, he said.
The challenge posed by Xi Jinping's China, by an adversarial China, it is hard for me to see a more significant threat or challenge for the United States as far out as I can see into the 21st century than that one. It is the biggest geopolitical test that we face, Burns said.
The relations between the US and China are at an all-time low. The two countries are currently engaged in a bitter confrontation over various issues, including trade, the origins of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the communist giant's aggressive military moves in the disputed South China Sea and human rights.
There are, however, a growing number of areas in which Xi's China is a formidable authoritarian adversary, methodically strengthening its capabilities to steal intellectual property, repress its own people, bully its neighbours, expand its global reach, and build influence in American society, Burns said.
For the CIA, that will mean intensified focus and urgency, continually strengthening its already impressive cadre of China specialists, expanding its language skills, aligning personnel and resource allocation for the long haul, and employing a whole of agency approach to the operational and analytical challenges of this crucial threat, he told the lawmakers.
Another priority intimately connected to competition with China is technology, he said.
Responding to a question, Burns said that the evolution of China under Xi's rule over the last six or seven years has been a very sharp wake-up call in a lot of ways, the kind of aggressive, undisguised ambition and assertiveness has made very clear the nature of the adversary and rival that America faces today.
The challenge is how do you build a long-term... We have to buckle up for the long haul, I think, in competition with China. This is not like the competition with the Soviet Union and the Cold War, which was primarily in security and ideological terms, he said.
This is an adversary that is extraordinarily ambitious in technology and capable in economic terms as well. So it is buckling up for the long term and developing a very clear-eyed bipartisan strategy, which I think is entirely possible right now, Burns said.
Burns told lawmakers that it's important for the United States to view cooperation with China on climate issues is not a favour to the United States. It's in the self-interest of China to do that.
So, in other words, it's not something to be traded. It's in the self-interest of China as well to work on these issues. And it's important for us to be clear eyed about that, as I'm sure the president and Secretary (John) Kerry will be, he said.
The Chinese military has been flexing its muscles in the strategically vital Indo-Pacific region and is also engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Also at the hearing, Burns stressed the importance of "firmness and consistency" in responding to Russia, CNN reported.
Burns said he learned through his foreign policy work "in dealing with those threats, responding to them and deterring them, firmness and consistency is hugely important, and it's also very important to work to the maximum extent possible with allies and partners."
"We have more effects sometimes on Putin's calculus, when he sees responses coming, firm responses coming not just from the United States, but from our European allies and others as well. So, it pays off to work hard at widening that circle of countries who are going to push back," he was quoted as saying by the report.
Burns also said that "it's always a mistake to underestimate Putin's Russia," noting that under Vladimir Putin's leadership it can be at least as disruptive as a rising power like China.
"So we have to be quite cold-eyed in our view of how those threats can emerge," he said.
If confirmed, Burns won't be a member of Biden's Cabinet, which represents a change from the Trump administration, but a return to the status the job had in the Obama administration, the report added.
CIA deputy director David Cohen has served in the role of acting director as Burns awaits confirmation.