The global coronavirus pandemic has done little to stop adversaries, especially China, from targeting the United States and making gains at the country's expense, according to a newly unveiled U.S. intelligence assessment.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) issued the declassified 27-page report Tuesday, a day before top U.S. intelligence officials were set to testify before lawmakers about the most pressing threats in the year ahead.
Beijing, the report said, "will continue its whole-of-government efforts to spread China's influence, undercut that of the United States, drive wedges between Washington and its allies and partners, and foster new international norms that favor the authoritarian Chinese system."
The analysis, representing the conclusions of all 18 U.S. intelligence agencies, further warns that Chinese leadership views the intensifying competition with Washington as part of an "epochal geopolitical shift" and is willing to embrace ever more aggressive strategies to gain the upper hand.
That aggressiveness, according to officials, includes the pursuit of additional military installations around the world and access agreements "to enhance its ability to project power."
It also involves a growing arsenal.
"China is building a larger and increasingly capable nuclear missile force that is more survivable, more diverse and on higher alert," the ODNI report said, warning that Beijing is trying to ensure it can retaliate against a nuclear attack with nuclear missiles of its own.
U.S. intelligence analysts further expect China to secure a presence in space — with a space station operating in a low Earth orbit in the next three years — and to remain a threat in cyberspace, where it has demonstrated the ability to cause "localized, temporary disruptions to critical infrastructure within the United States."
Yet, U.S. intelligence analysts believe there will be chances for Washington and Beijing to work together.
"Chinese leaders probably will, however, seek tactical opportunities to reduce tensions with Washington when such opportunities suit their interests," according to the ODNI report.
The public assessment, now required by law, is the first since 2019, when then-President Donald Trump castigated his intelligence officials on social media for being "passive and naïve" for their assessments of Iran, North Korea and the Islamic State terror group. Efforts by lawmakers to secure a public threat assessment in 2020 failed.
Still, the new assessment echoes themes U.S. intelligence officials have voiced in other public settings, warning that in addition to China, the U.S. will face major challenges from Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Russia, the analysts predict, remains bent on undermining U.S. influence and on dividing and weakening Western alliances, as part of a tit for tat with the United States.
"Russian officials have long believed that the United States is conducting its own 'influence campaigns' to undermine Russia, weaken President Vladimir Putin, and install Western-friendly regimes in the states of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere," according to the report.
"Russia seeks an accommodation with the United States on mutual noninterference in both countries' domestic affairs and U.S. recognition of Russia's claimed sphere of influence over much of the former Soviet Union," it added.
While the latter may lead Moscow to offer to partner with the United States, intelligence officials see few reasons to believe that the Kremlin will dial back on any of its more nefarious activities, whether that means pushing the boundaries in cyberspace, destabilizing Ukraine or eliminating dissidents.
Concerns about Moscow's military prowess also persist.
"Russia will remain the largest and most capable WMD (weapons of mass destruction) rival to the United States for the foreseeable future," the ODNI report said.
U.S. intelligence analysts see few indications Iran will seek to change course, seeing itself as "locked in a struggle" with Washington over Tehran's sphere of influence in the Middle East and beyond. And recent outreach by U.S. President Joe Biden in an attempt to reinvigorate the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is unlikely to sway Iran's leadership.
"We expect that Iran will take risks that could escalate tensions and threaten U.S. and allied interests," U.S. intelligence analysts warn.
As for Tehran's nuclear program, U.S. intelligence believes Iran "is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device," though analysts said it has resumed some nuclear activities banned under the terms of the nuclear deal.
U.S. intelligence agencies also expect Iran to continue to pose problems in Iraq while trying to establish a permanent military presence in Syria and while playing all sides of the conflict in Afghanistan so it will be well-positioned no matter who ultimately prevails.
Tehran, most likely, will continue to make use of its growing cyber capabilities, which include the ability to launch attacks on critical infrastructure, the report said.
Iran is likely to have company when it comes to taking risks.
The U.S. threat assessment warns that North Korea is also showing signs it will do more than its traditional saber-rattling to get attention.
"Kim Jong Un may take a number of aggressive and potentially destabilizing actions to reshape the regional security environment and drive wedges between the United States and its allies," the ODNI report said, warning that Pyongyang "will be a WMD threat for the foreseeable future."
Once considered the greatest threat to the U.S., terrorism, intelligence officials warn, has been steadily outpaced by problems emanating from the great power competition between the U.S., China and Russia, and threats in cyberspace.
But despite suffering leadership losses, the intelligence assessment warns that Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida should not be underestimated.
The two terror groups "remain the greatest Sunni terrorist threats to U.S. interests overseas," the report said. "They also seek to conduct attacks inside the United States, although sustained U.S. and allied CT (counterterrorism) pressure has broadly degraded their capability."
Intelligence officials caution that in the meantime, IS remains "capable of waging a prolonged insurgency" in Iraq and Syria while maintaining its global aspirations.
Al-Qaida, while suffering what intelligence analysts describe as "severe losses" over the past several years, has likewise shown resilience, especially in Africa.
Intelligence officials also said that in some parts of Europe, the risk from white supremacists is outpacing the danger from the likes of IS and al-Qaida.
"Australia, Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom consider white racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, including Neo-Nazi groups, to be the fastest-growing terrorist threat," the report said.
Intelligence analysts warn climate change is likely to fuel major disruptions over the coming year.
"Ecological degradation and a changing climate will continue to fuel disease outbreaks, threaten food and water security, and exacerbate political instability and humanitarian crises," the report said.
"This year, we will see increasing potential for surges in migration by Central American populations, which are reeling from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and extreme weather, including multiple hurricanes in 2020 and several years of recurring droughts and storms," it said.