U.S. intelligence experts are in the business of adapting. During the Cold War, Russia became the focus. After 9/11, the priority turned to counterterrorism. Now, a new era is underway.
“We see a pivot back towards great power conflict, Russia and China in particular, but also Iran and North Korea. Challenges from nation states, not from terrorist organizations,” said former CIA officer Paul Kolbe.
Kolbe, now the director of the Intelligence Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, says China, in particular, will be a long-term focus.
“China represents an enduring threat. So for the next one to five, 10, 20, 50 years, we’re going to be having some of the same discussions,” he said.
To counter Beijing, intelligence agencies have quietly moved hundreds of officers and major resources to this threat. Last October, the CIA launched the China Mission Center, a unit focusing explicitly on Beijing.
The CIA is also making emerging technologies a priority, given how the Chinese have used it as a primary means of espionage.
“The Chinese have shown they are willing to pursue our personal data on a scale like anything, anywhere else in the world,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray during a recent Senate testimony.
Wray says China holds more U.S. corporate and international data than any other country combined and uses it regularly to target the U.S. government, infrastructure, and research.
Intelligence officials also believe this data is gathered through apps like TikTok.
“If you can collect that massive amount of data on a regular basis using artificial intelligence and other analytic tools, there’s tremendous advantages,” Kolbe said.
Collecting data on Beijing, however, is no easy feat. China is a closed authoritarian state with a massive surveillance apparatus and major restrictions on what’s allowed in and out of the country. Kolbe says the U.S. will need to take a play from their book to be effective.
“To understand what’s happening in China, to understand their capabilities, and understand their plans of intention, what’s in Xi Jinping’s head, that requires a large, focused, patient, intelligence collection effort,” Kolbe said.
Even as more attention shifts to China, intelligence officials say fighting al-Qaeda and other terror groups still remains a priority.