President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to head the Office of the Director of National Intelligence offered a direct answer to a yes-or-no question about whether the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is an adversary of the United States.
Avril Haines, who is Biden's nominee to be director of national intelligence, told lawmakers on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as part of her confirmation hearing on Jan. 19 that China is an adversary in some areas while a partner in others, such as climate change.
She deferred to Biden’s definition of the communist regime as a “global competitor,” while adding that she will nonetheless work to counter Beijing’s illegal espionage.
"Is China, under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party an adversary of the United States?" Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) asked.
"China is adversarial and an adversary on some issues and, in other issues, we try to cooperate with them, whether in the context of climate change or other things,” Haines responded.
“And ultimately, the frame that the president-elect has identified for thinking about this is a global competitor,” she added. “But I think that doesn't, to your point, in any way mitigate the fact that when it comes to espionage or the variety of areas that I'll be focused on if I'm confirmed as the director of national intelligence, they are an adversary and that we have to work on those issues, in particular, countering their illegal, unfair, aggressive actions in these spaces."
Both Warner, the top Democrat on the committee, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the committee chairman, said the CCP is the No. 1 threat facing the United States. Haines steered clear of using the same language in her opening remarks, opting instead to define the relationship with the United States as a competitive one.
“We should provide the necessary intelligence to support the long-term bipartisan efforts to outcompete China, gaining and sharing insight into China's intentions and capabilities, while also supporting more immediate efforts to counter Beijing's unfair, illegal, aggressive, and coercive actions as well as its human rights violations whenever we can,” she said.
Haines served as deputy national security adviser in the Obama White House from 2015 to 2017. Prior to that, she served as the deputy director of the CIA. Biden announced his intention to appoint Haines on Nov. 23, 2020.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) asked Haines if she had any concerns about how the Obama administration approached China when Haines served in the White House. Haines said she supports the Trump administration’s more assertive stance.
“China is a challenge to our security, to our prosperity, to our values across a range of issues and I do support an aggressive stance, in a sense, to deal with the challenge that we're facing. So I think that's the place that we are now and one that's more assertive than we had been in the Obama–Biden administration,” Haines said.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said that the failure to address the threat of the CCP has been bipartisan, stretching over the course of more than a decade. He asked Haines why the intelligence community has been slow to pivot its priorities to China, despite years of rhetoric about the threat.
“Our opponent is not the Chinese people. Our opponent is not Chinese Americans. But our opponent is the Chinese Communist Party," Sasse said. "Yet, if we look at the resources of the intelligence community, it still doesn't show a primary focus on China that I think is the bipartisan consensus in this committee."
Haines explained that the intelligence community’s focus is on some threats that have been the focus for many years, including terrorism, war zones, and the Middle East. Experience on Asia, in comparison, is lacking, she added.
Sasse asked Haines to commit to producing a strategic plan during her first six months in office, outlining how the intelligence community will shift its focus to the CCP. Haines committed to doing so.
In 2020, the Senate Intelligence Committee held 10 publicly disclosed meetings on Russia and none on China. During the same time period, the committee released several voluminous reports on Russia and none on China.