CIA Pivots to China As Director Calls It 'Most Important Geopolitical Threat We Face'

The Central Intelligence Agency announced on Thursday the creation of a new China Mission Center, in another sign of the U.S.'s whole-of-government approach to the country it has identified as its biggest rival of the coming decades.

U.S.-China political ties are in some of their worst form since relations were normalized in 1979. There remain precious few areas in which the world's two largest economies can cooperate while senior officials in Washington see Beijing's ambition to supplant what they consider to be the American-led rules-based international order.

The Chinese government's growing influence on the world stage and its advancing capabilities at home aim to counter U.S. dominance across a wide spectrum—militarily, technologically, in cyberspace and now in espionage. Fundamental political disagreements persist over the origins of COVID-19, alleged human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang and coercion against its neighbors in Asia.

In an announcement to the workforce, CIA Director William Burns said the China center would help strengthen the agency as it sought to address "the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century."

A statement carried by the CIA website said the center was formed following a strategic review and a structural reorganization. The "increasingly adversarial Chinese government"—and not its people—is the source of the threat, said the agency.

Mike Pompeo, former CIA head before becoming Donald Trump's secretary of state, has emphasized similar distinctions between China's ruling Communist Party and what he called the country's "long-suffering" people.

"[F]acing our toughest geopolitical test in a new era of great power rivalry, CIA will be at the forefront of this effort," Burns said to CIA staff.

The China Mission Center would address the "global challenge" posed by China that "cuts across all of the Agency's mission areas," said the CIA's statement. The Washington Post reported on Thursday that centers on North Korea and Iran—priorities of the former administration—would be folded into existing working groups.

The Post reported a senior CIA official as likening the new effort to America's Cold War intelligence challenges while facing off with the Soviet Union, only this time involving a "more formidable and complicated rival" due to China's economic heft and the mutual dependence of both economies.

"Just as it did against the Soviets, the CIA will deploy more officers, linguists, technicians and specialists in countries around the world to gather intelligence and counter China's interests," the paper said, citing the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Along with Thursday's restructuring came the announcement of another center focusing on emerging technologies, economic security, climate change and global health, according to the CIA. The agency has also launched a new recruitment program to streamline the currently lengthy vetting and selection process.

The Associated Press said the China working group would become one of fewer than a dozen mission centers at the CIA. It will entail "weekly director-level meetings intended to drive the agency's strategy toward China," the report noted.

CIA Forms New China-focused Working Group
File: The Chinese national flag is seen at the entrance to the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing on May 18, 2020. The CIA announced on Thursday the creation of a new China Mission Center. NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images