Dec 4, 2020 - World

Ratcliffe's long-term China play

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe testifies at a congressional hearing
Ratcliffe testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in May. Photo: Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe told Axios in an interview Thursday that "China and China alone is the only country that has the ability to compete with the U.S." — and hopes the intelligence community will adopt his view even under "the next administration."

Why it matters: Ratcliffe's comments suggested that he's trying to lock in the Trump era's harder line on China for the long term.

Driving the news: Ratcliffe published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday evening in which he stated that the "People’s Republic of China poses the greatest threat to America today, and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom world-wide since World War II."

What he's saying: Ratcliffe told Axios that shifting the intelligence community's priority to China has been "really my focus since I’ve been in this position. Hopefully that will continue regardless of ... the next administration."

  • And he said he wrote the op-ed "because, without getting into the Biden administration specifically, there are folks that have been politicizing intelligence and haven’t been talking about threats honestly, to fit a political narrative."
  • "Now the election is over. We need to speak honestly."

Ratcliffe said the threat is urgent, because the U.S. has a limited window of opportunity to act while China remains the weaker country.

  • "It’s always better to fight downhill. At this point, for all of the threats that China poses, we have the ability to fight them downhill because we are still stronger," Ratcliffe said. "I don’t want our country to be in a position where we fight them uphill."
  • Ratcliffe also said that China poses a graver threat than the Soviet Union because, while the Soviet Union was primarily a military competitor, China aims to win in economic, technological, and military competition around the globe.

China's telecom giant Huawei poses a dual concern because leaders in Beijing know that it could "drive a wedge" between the U.S. and its allies, said Ratcliffe.

  • The U.S. has told some European allies that if they use Huawei or other Chinese companies to build 5G infrastructure, the U.S. would no longer be able to share some sensitive intelligence with allies because those networks would not be secure.
  • If a U.S. ally were to choose Huawei, not only would they be vulnerable to Chinese digital incursions but their relationship with the U.S. would be weakened, Ratcliffe added.

Across the aisle: Democrats see Ratcliffe as a Trump loyalist, but they aren't disputing his claims.

  • The Democrat-led House Intelligence Committee found in a September report that the U.S. intelligence community had failed to adapt to China's rise, and that this failure risked America's future ability to compete with Beijing.

What they're saying: "It’s imperative the Intelligence Community rebalance its focus and funding to more effectively address the vast array of challenges that China poses to our national security,” committee chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a statement in response to Ratcliffe's op-ed. “This is an area of substantial bipartisan agreement, and a challenge we must rise to meet."

Between the lines: Schiff's comment suggests that the Trump administration's effort to cement a tough approach to China may succeed.

Go deeper: Trump plans last-minute China crackdown

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