The top U.S. intelligence official warned Tuesday that the United States is facing strengthening ties and a convergence of interests between China and Russia, just as policy changes on trade and defense by the Trump administration could cause allies to look beyond Washington — a stark admission amid growing fears of faltering alliances.
“China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s, and the relationship is likely to strengthen in the coming year,” according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, which was presented by the intelligence community’s top brass at an annual hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“At the same time, some U.S. allies and partners are seeking greater independence from Washington in response to their perceptions of changing U.S. policies on security and trade,” the assessment warned.
U.S. allies, including Japan, have long been concerned over President Donald Trump’s approach to these policies, and some experts say the assessment reiterates these concerns.
“I think it states what we all know — the president has intensified concern in allied capitals about whether they can or should rely on the United States for their security. The sources of that concern are many, but … I don’t think DNI’s report is a message to allies,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
“DNI is simply acknowledging the impact of the past two years on U.S. reliability.”
Others, however, said Tuesday’s report points to something more ominous: That after an initial period of relatively successful attempts by officials to rein in the president’s more erratic stances, Trump’s worldview appears to have prevailed.
“Allies have been worried about Trump’s approach to allies since the campaign,” said Nick Bisley, an Asia expert and a professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Australia.
This has been especially the case for Japan, he noted.
Bisley said that the president’s “first year or so” seemed to indicate that the conventional approach out of Washington would hold up in the face of a Trump White House that didn’t seem connected to the policy process. But he said that over the past year, elites with conventional policy approaches have departed, creating a kind of “functional Trumpism” coming out of the White House.
“Trump’s instincts will get increasingly enabled by policy elites and the kind of transactional approach to alliances that is at the heart of his worldview is likely to become more dominant,” Bisley said, adding that allies were “genuinely worried and beginning to think seriously about ‘plan B.’ ”
In Tokyo, this is likely to reinforce the sentiment that “a kind of ‘what have you done for me lately’ mentality” will dominate in Washington, he said, noting drawn-out negotiations over cost-sharing for U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and Trump’s insistence that Seoul accept as much as a 50 percent increase in what it pays for American military protection.
“Given the frictions with ROK this is especially worrisome for Tokyo,” Bisley said, using the acronym for the South’s formal name, the Republic of Korea.
These fears in allied capitals come as the DNI assessment said Moscow and Beijing are competing “more intensely with the United States and its traditional allies and partners” and “are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.”
This relationship — which saw the two powers defined as “strategic competitors” in the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy — “is likely to strengthen in the coming year as some of their interests and threat perceptions converge, particularly regarding perceived U.S. unilateralism and interventionism and Western promotion of democratic values and human rights,” the report said.
Their competition with the U.S. “cuts across all domains, involves a race for technological and military superiority, and is increasingly about values” as the two powers “seek to shape the international system and regional security dynamics and exert influence over the politics and economies of states in all regions of the world and especially in their respective backyards.”
Beyond China and Russia, the threat assessment also appeared to directly contradict Trump in saying that nuclear-armed North Korea is unlikely to dismantle its arsenal, an idea that the White House has built the U.S. negotiating strategy around.
“We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival,” DNI Director Dan Coats told the Senate committee.
Coats did note that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has expressed support for ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons and over the past year has not test-fired a nuclear-capable missile or conducted a nuclear test.
The report said U.S. intelligence continues to “observe activity inconsistent with” full nuclear disarmament by the North. “In addition, North Korea has for years underscored its commitment to nuclear arms, including through an order in 2018 to mass-produce weapons and an earlier law — and constitutional change — affirming the country’s nuclear status,” it said.
The assessment said that Kim’s support for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” at his June Singapore summit with Trump is a formulation linked to a long-standing push by Pyongyang to boot the U.S. military from the peninsula and the surrounding region.
Trump and Kim are both eager to hold a second summit, but no agenda, venue or date has been announced, though U.S. officials say the meeting is likely to be held in February.
Trump asserted after the Singapore summit that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat, and has said that his efforts prevented a major war in Asia.
However, Coats and other intelligence officials at the hearing made clear they see it differently.
“The capabilities and threat that existed a year ago are still there,” Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley said.
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Smith said the assessment matched the thinking of many in the U.S. intelligence community.
“It was good to hear it,” she said, adding that while “it is not a criticism of the Trump administration’s effort at diplomacy, it is a refutation of the president’s assertion that the threat is gone.”
Information from AP added