A top CIA official for Asia said Friday that Beijing is waging a “cold war” against Washington and seeking “to replace the United States as the leading power in the world.”

Speaking at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado, CIA East Asia Mission Center Deputy Assistant Director Michael Collins’ remarks at a public session on the rise of China were some of the starkest comments to date about Beijing’s intentions not only in Asia, but also across the globe.

Collins said the Chinese leadership “has been aspiring, expanding its ambitions, its interests, its activities around the globe to compete with the United States, and at the end of day, to undermine our influence relative to their influence.”

Collins said that Chinese President Xi Jinping has overseen this push to dethrone the United States by taking a cold war-type approach.

“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.”

Collins’ comments echoed those of FBI Director Christopher Wray, who at the same forum on Wednesday said China “represents the broadest, most challenging, most significant threat we face as a country.”

In its most recent National Defense Strategy report, unveiled early this year, the U.S. cautioned about the return to an era of “great power” conflict with adversaries such as China and Russia.

That report said China is currently “leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage,” but noted that as it continued its economic and military ascendance it will continue to work to push the U.S. out of Asia “to achieve global preeminence in the future.”

Euan Graham, a security expert with Australia’s Lowy Institute, said Collins’ remarks had stressed the two powers’ increasingly fraught relationship in a different light.

“A warning on China coming from a senior East Asia analyst is no surprise,” Graham said. “But casting Sino-U.S. rivalry in global terms is a step up from regarding China as a regional peer competitor.”

Perhaps the most visible aspects of China’s push for preeminence has been in the South China Sea, where it has built up a series of military outposts.

The strategic waterway — in which the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims — includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year.

As part of what some experts say is a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the South China Sea, three of Beijing’s man-made islets boast military-grade airfields, where it has also deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-air missiles.

Washington has blasted Beijing for the island-building, fearing the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway, with the U.S. conducting a number of so-called freedom of navigation operations in the area.

Taiwan, meanwhile, also remains a potential flash point, as Xi orders ramped-up military training and actions around the self-ruled island. Beijing has warned that it will defend, by force if necessary, its “One China” principle under which Taiwan is seen as part of China’s own territory, awaiting reunification.

And in the East China Sea, Washington has stoked anger in Beijing over a pledge to defend the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyu.

On the economic front, the U.S. and China have also been engaged in a tit-for-tat trade war that could unleash chaos on the global economy and has threatened ties between the two powers.

Collins said that by looking at Chinese propaganda and what is known as “Xi Jinping Thought” — a worldview recently enshrined in China’s constitution — it is clear that the threat China presents is the greatest global challenge the U.S. 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,” he said.

The Lowy Institute’s Graham said Collins’ remarks served as a reminder that despite the current preoccupation with Russian influence, top intelligence officials in the U.S. view China as the real strategic competitor.

“China is a far more formidable adversary than Russia ever was, or will be,” he said.

“Collins’ comments are a reminder that the U.S. sees itself engaged in a struggle to maintain strategic primacy, and that this informs Washington’s approach not only in the military domain, but also explains its increasingly confrontational zero-sum attitude on trade and technology,” Graham added.


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