President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese leaders appear unsettled by the problems Russia has faced in invading Ukraine but their determination on the Taiwan issue should not be misjudged, the director of the CIA said on Tuesday.
Their concerns include the potential reputational damage Beijing faces being associated with Moscow, the speed with which Western allies have come together in response and the possible fallout as China faces its lowest economic growth in three decades, said William Burns, who has headed the agency since March 2021.
â€œThey have been surprised and unsettled to some extent by what theyâ€™ve seen in Ukraine over the last 12 days, everything from the strength of the Western reaction to the way in which Ukrainians have fiercely resisted,â€ he said, adding: â€œI would not underestimate President Xi and the Chinese leadershipâ€™s determination with regard to Taiwan.â€
Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.
Burns, who appeared along with other top security officials during an annual US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats, said he did not see room for â€œproductiveâ€ US-China talks over Taiwan linked to the crisis.
Some analysts have compared Russiaâ€™s attack on Ukraine to self-governing Taiwan, which China has vowed to reunite by force if necessary, an analogy Beijing and others dispute.
Taiwan and Ukraine are â€œtwo different things completelyâ€, said Scott Berrier, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, adding that the US â€œdeterrence postureâ€ in central Europe is also very different from the Indo-Pacific, adding that China is watching â€œvery, very carefully what happens and how this plays outâ€.
Chinaâ€™s â€œcalculus with regard to Taiwanâ€ is being influenced by the crisis and is worth watching, Burns added, without elaborating.
Beijing and Moscow had been moving closer together on political, economic and security issues, but the partnership had its limits and it remained unclear how that would be affected by Ukraine developments, Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, told lawmakers.
â€œIt does seem as if they are potentially paying a price for not criticising Russia, and that may have an impact on how this trajectory moves forward,â€ said Haines, who deemed China an â€œunparalleled priority for the intelligence communityâ€.
China is increasingly challenging the US on a host of fronts and is particularly effective at bringing a â€œcoordinated whole of government approachâ€ to show its muscle and compel neighbouring countries to follow its preferences, she said.
The hearing, aimed at fleshing out an annual report on global threats to the US, was divided into an open morning session and a closed-door afternoon hearing. This yearâ€™s â€œAnnual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Communityâ€ focused on China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as well as sectoral challenges including Covid-19 and climate change.
The Chinese Communist Party has several key objectives, the report said. Along with reunifying Taiwan and strengthening the partyâ€™s grip, they include: undercutting US influence, driving a wedge between Washington and its allies, reducing dependence on foreign technology, sustaining growth and strengthening the military.
Fuelling its growing military might include its largest ever nuclear weapons expansion, an aggressive missile-building programme and, with Russia, growing ambitions for space as a â€œwar-fighting domainâ€.
But Chinese leaders also have some knotty challenges, it added, including an ageing population, mounting corporate debt, economic inequality and growing resistance in Taiwan and some countries to its heavy-handed tactics as its footprint expands.
Said Haines: â€œThe PRC is coming ever closer to being a peer competitor in areas of relevance to national security, is pushing to revise global norms and institutions to its advantage and is challenging the United States in multiple arenas, but particularly economically, militarily and technologically.â€