By Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON, Feb 2 (Reuters) – U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns said on Thursday that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitions toward Taiwan should not be underestimated, despite him likely being sobered by the performance of Russia’s military in Ukraine.
Burns said that the United States knew “as a matter of intelligence” that Xi had ordered his military to be ready to conduct an invasion of self-governed Taiwan by 2027.
“Now, that does not mean that he’s decided to conduct an invasion in 2027, or any other year, but it’s a reminder of the seriousness of his focus and his ambition,” Burns told an event at Georgetown University in Washington.
“Our assessment at CIA is that I wouldn’t underestimate President Xi’s ambitions with regard to Taiwan,” he said, adding that the Chinese leader was likely “surprised and unsettled” and trying to draw lessons by the “very poor performance” of the Russian military and its weapons systems in Ukraine.
Russia and China signed a “no limits” partnership last February shortly before Russian forces invaded Ukraine, and their economic links have boomed as Russia’s connections with the West have shriveled.
The Russian invasion had fueled concerns in the West of China possibly making a similar move on Taiwan, a democratic island Beijing says is its territory.
China has refrained from condemning Russia’s operation against Ukraine, but it has been careful not to provide the sort of direct material support which could provoke Western sanctions like those imposed on Moscow.
“I think it’s a mistake to underestimate the mutual commitment to that partnership, but it’s not a friendship totally without limits,” Burns said.
As Burns spoke, news came from U.S. officials that a suspected Chinese spy balloon had been flying over the United States for a few days, and that senior U.S. officials had advised President Joe Biden against shooting it down for fear the debris could pose a safety threat.
Burn made no mention of the episode but called China the “biggest geopolitical challenge” currently faced by the United States.
“Competition with China is unique in its scale, and that it really, you know, unfolds over just about every domain, not just military, and ideological, but economic, technological, everything from cyberspace, to space itself as well. It’s a global competition in ways that could be even more intense than competition with the Soviets was,” he said.
There was no immediate comment from China’s Washington embassy about the remarks from Burns or the balloon flight.
Burns said the next six months will be “critical” for Ukraine, where Moscow has been making incremental gains in recent weeks.
He also said Iran’s government was increasingly unsettled by affairs within the country, citing the courage of what he described as “fed up” Iranian women.
(Reporting by Michael Martina, Rami Ayyub, David Brunnstrom and Phil Stewart; Editing by Christopher Cushing)