The US intelligence community’s annual threat assessment for this year certainly cannot be faulted for having a narrow focus or Pollyanna perspective.
From a rising China, Russian aggression and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to climate change, future pandemics and the growing reach of international organized crime, US intelligence analysis is as comprehensive as it is worrying.
Inaugurated two decades ago as a gesture of transparency and to inform the public and the US Congress, the annual threat assessment offers the intelligence agencies’ top-line conclusions about the country’s leading national-security threats — although always in ways that do not compromise “sources and methods.”
As in the past, US spies and intelligence analysts have stayed in their lane and avoided policy questions, or any suggestion that some problems are more important than others.
Yet when testifying to the US Senate Intelligence Committee on March 8, US National Intelligence Director Avril Haines was not as constrained. She made it abundantly clear that the administration of US President Joe Biden regards China as “our unparalleled challenge,” and as a leading national-security threat.
If the annual threat assessment was less categorical, that is because it represents a harmonized view. Differences of expert opinion and bureaucratic battles across 18 intelligence agencies come with the territory, requiring compromises on wording and substance.
Having chaired scores of meetings to coordinate assessments as a member of the National Intelligence Council, I can attest to the heated debates that are involved. Forging a consensus among such an animated crowd is a true art.
However, as important as it is to argue over evidence and language, it all ultimately takes a back seat to the first step in any analysis — figuring out what questions the final product should address.
Part of the answer, of course, depends on the president and other key policymakers. With a US$67 billion budget, the US intelligence community owes its paymasters that much at least.
However, the task also calls for a sober examination of the facts and their implications, regardless of whether these align with the administration’s views. Here, this year’s threat assessment fell short.
Like the White House, the assessment emphasizes the threats represented by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) confrontational approach and advances in China’s military, economic and technological capabilities.
Meanwhile, there is less insight into China’s domestic problems and what those could mean for Xi’s regime. As threat assessments go, this omission might be justifiable, but when it comes to improving policymakers’ and ordinary Americans’ understanding of their foremost global competitor, Xi’s domestic difficulties should not get such short shrift.
Consider Xi’s effort to restructure the Chinese property sector following decades of massive investment. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace senior fellow Michael Pettis said this sector accounts for as much as one-third of China’s GDP, but it is extraordinarily bloated and thus underperforming.
Two years ago, Chinese authorities tried to crack down on borrowing by overleveraged developers, sparking multibillion-dollar defaults and leaving scores of cities littered with abandoned projects and faced with long construction delays. Many of the big developers are still struggling, as are local governments that have racked up massive debts financing their work.
Even China’s own dodgy official economic statistics reveal a massive, festering problem. China’s 31 provinces have racked up US$5.1 trillion in debt to fund development, and that figure does not even include all of the additional local government financing vehicles.
These off-the-books entities serve as back doors for municipal governments to tap banks for loans and sell bonds after they have borrowed heavily to finance property and infrastructure projects. The total debt associated with this financing has exploded to almost US$10 trillion, the IMF said.
This red ink is as much a political problem as a financial one. Chinese local government financing has US$790 billion worth of bonds coming due this year, and another US$70 billion of offshore debt is to matured by 2025. Land sales to developers have long been local governments’ principal revenue source, but with these tanking, officials are being forced to slash salaries, pensions, services and healthcare to service debts.
These cuts have provoked demonstrations in several cities — and workers and pensioners are not the only ones who are upset. China’s burgeoning middle class bet big on real estate in recent years, giving the country a home ownership rate of nearly 90 percent. Now the property sector’s turmoil is hitting them hard. With 70 percent of Chinese household wealth tied up in property, owners have seen their nest eggs shrink.
In response, the Chinese government once again eased credit to stimulate the real-estate market in November last year. By January, home prices had ended a 16-month decline.
Potential buyers remain wary. There is still a massive backlog of unfinished projects, and everyone remembers the large protests last year by would-be homeowners who had taken out up-front mortgages on homes that might never be built. More stalled projects and flagging sales already bode ill for this year.
To be sure, like other short and long-term domestic challenges facing China — from growing youth unemployment to a shrinking labor force — property-sector woes are not an immediate threat to Xi’s rule or the Chinese Communist Party’s power.
However, they do obviously pose problems for his agenda, both foreign and domestic. Following the massive protests against China’s “zero COVID” policy late last year, Chinese officials are well aware of the political risks.
Under Xi, the party is expanding its presence in China’s government ministries as well as business boardrooms, and a raft of reforms has tightened access to officials and information.
The US intelligence community’s otherwise well-presented unclassified annual assessment should have dug deeper. The US Congress and the public deserve to hear its best insights into the problems facing Xi’s regime. As we all know by now, what happens in China does not stay in China.
Kent Harrington is a former senior CIA analyst who served as a national intelligence officer for East Asia, chief of station in Asia and the CIA’s director of public affairs.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has a good reason to avoid a split vote against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in next month’s presidential election. It has been here before and last time things did not go well. Taiwan had its second direct presidential election in 2000 and the nation’s first ever transition of political power, with the KMT in opposition for the first time. Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was ushered in with less than 40 percent of the vote, only marginally ahead of James Soong (宋楚瑜), the candidate of the then-newly formed People First Party (PFP), who got almost 37
The three teams running in January’s presidential election were finally settled on Friday last week, but as the official race started, the vice-presidential candidates of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) have attracted more of the spotlight than the presidential candidates in the first week. After the two parties’ anticipated “blue-white alliance” dramatically broke up on the eve of the registration deadline, the KMT’s candidate, New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜), the next day announced Broadcasting Corp of China chairman Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康) as his running mate, while TPP Chairman and presidential candidate Ko Wen-je
On Tuesday, Taiwan’s TAIEX stock index peaked at 17,360 points and closed at 17,341 points, surpassing Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index, which fell to 17,303 points and closed at 17,541 points. A few years ago, the gap between the Taiwanese and Hong Kong stock indices was more than 20,000 points, but this was before the 2019 anti-extradition protests. Hong Kong is one of the world’s most important financial centers, but many Chinese Internet users joke that it is only a ruin today. When asked by a legislative councilor whether he would communicate with social media platforms in the mainland to request
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate and New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜) has called on his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) counterpart, William Lai (賴清德), to abandon his party’s Taiwanese independence platform. Hou’s remarks follow an article published in the Nov. 30 issue of Foreign Affairs by three US-China relations academics: Bonnie Glaser, Jessica Chen Weiss and Thomas Christensen. They suggested that the US emphasize opposition to any unilateral changes in the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait, and that if Lai wins the election, he should consider freezing the Taiwanese independence clause. The concept of de jure independence was first