In September 2020, the Chairman of the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), Adam Schiff, published a short critical article in Foreign Affairs in which he asserted that the U.S. intelligence community is unprepared to deal with the Chinese threat. While Adam Schiff is not entirely wrong, the reality is more nuanced and complex. This reality is also visible in France and Canada, where intelligence is aware of the threat posed by China, but where the redirection of intelligence to deal with this threat seems to be long overdue. The recent public statement by the Director of CSIS in Canada, naming China as a threat to the country, shows the intelligence community’s challenges in dealing with China. What is the capacity of U.S. intelligence to deal with the Chinese threat? What lessons can be learned for the intelligence communities in Canada and France, which are also facing this threat?
American Intelligence: Alert, But Insufficiently Prepared
American intelligence, far from being blind, is well aware of the threat posed by China, and has been for a long time. Indeed, in the National Intelligence Director’s 2007 Annual Threat Assessment, China was identified as one of the major “threats and challenges” to the United States in the coming years, although in 2007 the focus was on counterterrorism and nuclear proliferation. Almost 15 years ago, American intelligence was already aware of the threat posed by China’s economic espionage activities and the challenges posed by its economic and military growth. Today, China has become the most significant strategic threat to the United States. In December 2020, National Intelligence Director Daniel Ratcliffe said that China is the greatest threat to freedom and democracy since World War II. It is also a position shared by FBI Director Christopher Wray, who said China is the most significant long-term threat to the future of the United States. He goes further, arguing that “the stakes could not be higher.” The National Intelligence Director’s 2019 Annual Threat Assessment and the 2020 Domestic Threat Assessment both reflect the importance of the Chinese threat to U.S. security, both militarily and strategically through China’s ability to target satellites in Earth’s orbit with ground-based missiles, the construction of overseas military bases, and its modernization of naval capabilities, air offensive operations and long-distance mobilization for its operations, as well as security and economic threats through cyber-attacks, political influence activities, and espionage.
Yet the HPSCI report states that the US intelligence community has not sufficiently adapted to the geopolitical and technological changes caused by China’s rise to power and is failing to take sufficient account of non-military threats. However, the Commission relies on a relatively narrow definition of intelligence as the collection, analysis and dissemination of foreign intelligence and counterintelligence to policy-makers. This view comes from the traditional view of the intelligence cycle, which does not reflect the reality of intelligence missions. For example, as early as 2016, the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission demonstrated the intelligence community’s numerous efforts to counter aggressive Chinese activities, particularly in the area of espionage. In addition, the FBI has long focused on non-military threats from China, such as economic espionage and threats to the academic community.
However, as Adam Schiff and the HPSCI report point out, the allocation of resources in the intelligence community to address the Chinese threat is not sufficient to allow the United States to compete with China on the international stage and guarantee its national security. The U.S. government also needs to strengthen its ability to disrupt and deter Chinese influence operations in the United States. In addition, Schiff believes that the U.S. intelligence community must continue to prioritize counterintelligence efforts against China.
This is a position shared by the Biden administration and National Intelligence Director Avril Haines, who says that one of her priorities will be to devote more resources to countering the Chinese threat. She also presents herself as being in favour of an aggressive U.S. stance against China.
However, China is not the only threat to U.S. interests, and intelligence therefore faces a multitude of dangers. Indeed, the HPSCI points out that U.S. intelligence continues to face many challenges. For example, the Middle East and South Asia are regions that raise a number of issues, notably because of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the fight against international terrorism, but also because of sensitive intelligence cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which since 2017 have been pursuing policies that run counter to U.S. regional objectives. Moreover, the threat to the United States comes not only from China, but also from Russia’s nuclear proliferation, use of chemical weapons and military modernization. This is in addition to the domestic threat of violent extremism, which requires a growing investment in domestic intelligence to address it. Under these conditions, there is a real work to be done in prioritizing the threats to be addressed, in order to properly allocate the necessary resources to the intelligence community.
The Chinese Threat as Seen by French and Canadian Intelligence
While the United States, as a major power in direct competition with China, may be more targeted by the Chinese threat, France, has also reported several Chinese espionage incidents. Yet, in terms of homeland security as well as national security and defence, France did not, until very recently, consider the Chinese threat as one of its priorities. The latter were limited to the fight against Islamist-inspired terrorism and violent subversion. However, French intelligence is well aware of the Chinese threat, as shown by the Interior Minister’s 2019 speech on Chinese espionage and economic plundering in France. He stated that the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) is investing significant resources to monitor the evolution of the Chinese threat on French territory, particularly in terms of counterintelligence. The DGSI is therefore particularly aware of the Chinese threat and is deploying its investigative arsenal to deal with it. At the politico-strategic level, China became central to French foreign intelligence with their 2021 strategic update because of its destabilizing activities and its qualification as a “strategic rival for the EU.” This also leads France to focus more on new domains (cyber, space and artificial intelligence) to deal with hybrid strategies. Intelligence has become one of France’s priorities for modernizing its capabilities to manage competition with China, notably through increased investment and the modernization of intelligence resources, especially in the IT field. The General Directorate for External Security’s budget was also increased by 7.8% in 2021, mainly for cyber security.
In Canada, the situation is relatively similar to France. The intelligence community recognizes the scope of the Chinese threat. In February 2021 David Vigneault, the Director of CSIS, named the Chinese government as a threat to Canada, notably through its economic espionage activities targeting the pharmaceutical industry, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, aerospace or ocean technologies, and its foreign interference, notably in its hunt for Chinese political opponents on Canadian soil. The Director of CSIS thus calls for a strengthening Canada’s defences. However, it appears that the government is slow to strengthen its counterintelligence and counter interference measures. David Mulroney, former Canadian ambassador to China, affirms that China is the most significant threat to Canada, particularly in terms of its ability to target Canadian elites, especially given the major economic ties of some Canadian elites with China. Through economic incentive, China is able to secure the voices of certain Canadian elites with the intention of guiding some of Canada’s major decisions. According to Mulroney, Canada is a sleeping target for China. China is also specifically targeting the academic community, through research partnerships and through various Chinese student associations. Yet, for at least a decade, Canadian intelligence has been alerting the Canadian government about the rising threat of China. The situation has not improved during the pandemic. The Canadian intelligence community has been increasingly speaking out publicly to alert the public of the Chinese threat, including espionage in the pharmaceutical field.
The Challenge of Threat Prioritization
The United States, France and Canada face the same challenge with regard to China: the prioritization of this threat. While intelligence can warn of potential threats, only political leaders can decide to make it a national security priority, thereby redirecting intelligence resources towards the Chinese threat. However, what Adam Schiff denounces for American intelligence is the lack of resources allocated to the Chinese threat within the intelligence community, an allocation that depends on the prioritization of threats by the government. We must at all costs avoid reproducing the example of the early 1990s, when American intelligence warned of the growing threat of Al-Qaeda, but the government did not redirect intelligence resources. The situation is similar in France and Canada, where intelligence recognizes the scope of the threat posed by China, but the government has not (yet) made it a priority. The real problem, therefore, lies in the prioritization of threats by governments. If, at the political level, China is seen as a national security priority, this could lead to a redirection of intelligence capabilities. The delicate question will be to determine the nature and relative importance of the Chinese threat compared to other threats.