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Trump speaks during a press conference on China in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 29. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration is declassifying as-yet uncorroborated intelligence, recently briefed to President Trump, that indicates China offered to pay non-state actors in Afghanistan to attack American soldiers, two senior administration officials tell Axios.

The big picture: The disclosure of this unconfirmed intelligence comes 21 days before the end of Trump's presidency, after he has vowed to ratchet up pressure on China, and months after news reports indicated that the Russians had secretly offered bounties for Taliban militants to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

  • The Chinese embassy in D.C. did not respond to a request for comment. Trump is not believed to have discussed the matter with President Xi Jinping.
  • It was not immediately clear whether any members of Congress or President-elect Joe Biden have been briefed, though Biden now has access to the President's Daily Brief (PDB).

Behind the scenes: The intelligence was included in the president's briefing on Dec. 17, and Trump was verbally briefed on the matter by national security adviser Robert O'Brien, officials said.

  • Administration officials across multiple agencies are currently working to corroborate the initial intelligence reports.
  • Axios was not able to visually inspect any reports detailing the intelligence. A summary was described by phone by the officials.

Why it matters: If this intelligence were to be confirmed, it would represent a dramatic strategic shift for China, and sharply escalate tensions between China and the U.S. If the intelligence does not prove accurate, it raises questions about the motivations of the sources behind it as well as the decision to declassify it.

  • China has long played a quiet diplomatic role in Afghanistan, inviting Afghan Taliban officials to Beijing to discuss plans for a peace deal and encouraging an Afghan-led solution, though Chinese-made weapons and financing have at times also flowed into the conflict there.
  • It seems "incongruous" that China would take such a provocative action in Afghanistan, Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund who specializes in China-Afghanistan affairs, told Axios.
  • Pursuing peace in Afghanistan is "one of the extremely rare areas where the US and China still have a willingness to work together on an area of importance," Small said. "They know the drawdown is taking place. We’re not in the context where anything else needs to happen to US troops in Afghanistan. There is no reason to create additional pressure on US forces."

Flashback: In June, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany lashed out at the New York Times for publishing "unverified" allegations about the Russian bounty intelligence.

  • She suggested "rogue intelligence officers" were undermining Trump and U.S. security. She also insisted Trump hadn't been briefed because the intelligence hadn't been fully verified.

Details: One senior official involved in the latest China discussions, who described the uncorroborated intelligence to Axios, said: "Like all first reports, we react with caution to initial reports" but "any intel reports relating to the safety of our forces we take very seriously."

  • On Dec. 22, officials held a Policy Coordinating Committee (PCC) meeting to discuss the matter, said a second senior official with direct knowledge of the internal discussions.
  • The official said the PCC was focused on two objectives, consultation with the IC on attempts to verify initial reports, and consultation in the intelligence and defense communities around the force protection posture for remaining forces in Afghanistan.

Officials would not describe the source or sources of the intelligence or say when or over what period of time the activity occurred.

  • One said: "The U.S. has evidence that the PRC [People's Republic of China] attempted to finance attacks on American servicemen by Afghan non-state actors by offering financial incentives or 'bounties'" and said the National Security Council "is coordinating a whole-of-government investigation."
  • He would not say whether he was referring to the Taliban, or go beyond the descriptor of "non-state actors."
  • The timing of the alleged bounty offer is unclear. The source would say only that this happened some time after late February when the U.S. struck its deal with the Taliban. He also noted there had not been an American combat death in Afghanistan since.
  • He said the administration received earlier intelligence about "PRC weapons illicitly flowing into Afghanistan."

Between the lines: The British and U.S. governments have previously complained about Chinese-made weapons being used by the Taliban.

  • The interest in Afghanistan stems in part from Beijing's desire to prevent Chinese Muslim separatist groups from using the country as a base.
  • Afghan security officials recently discovered an alleged Chinese spy ring operating in the country apparently seeking to target Uighurs there, according to a Dec. 25 report from the Hindustan Times.

Don't forget: Trump received heavy criticism earlier this year when he admitted he had not addressed with Vladimir Putin the unconfirmed intelligence reports that Russia had been offering bribes to the Taliban to kill American soldiers.

  • The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Frank McKenzie, said in September that "it just has not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies me" that Russia offered these bounties. (This information was included in the President's Daily Brief earlier in the year, the New York Times first reported).
  • "We continue to look for that evidence," McKenzie said of the reports on Russia. "I just haven't seen it yet. But … it's not a closed issue."

Go deeper

John Kerry: U.S.-China climate cooperation is a "critical standalone issue"

President Biden's special climate envoy John Kerry said Wednesday that the U.S. must deal with China on climate change as a "critical standalone issue," but stressed that confronting Beijing's human rights and trade abuses "will never be traded" for climate cooperation.

Why it matters: The last few years have brought about a bipartisan consensus on the threat posed by China. But as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China will be a vital player if the world is going to come close to reining in emissions on the scale needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals of limiting warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."