The director of the CIA said that Chinese president Xi Jinping has been “unsettled” by the war in Ukraine, which had demonstrated that the friendship between Beijing and Moscow had “limits” at a time when western allies were moving closer together.
Speaking at the FT Weekend Festival in Washington on Saturday, Bill Burns said the “bitter experience” of the first 10 to 11 weeks of the conflict had come as a surprise to the Chinese leadership and may be affecting its calculations with respect to Taiwan.
“It strikes us . . . that Xi Jinping is a little bit unsettled by the reputational damage that can come to China by the association with the brutishness of Russia’s aggression against Ukrainians [and] unsettled certainly by the economic uncertainty that’s been produced by the war,” Burns said, adding that Xi’s “main focus” was on “predictability”.
He added that China was also dismayed by “the fact that what Putin has done is driving Europeans and Americans closer together” and was looking “carefully at what lessons they should draw” for Taiwan.
“I don’t for a minute think that it’s eroded Xi’s determination over time to gain control over Taiwan,” although it was “affecting their calculation”, Burns said.
Burns said Xi’s China was the “biggest geopolitical challenge we face over the long term as a country”, even though the threat from Putin’s Russia could not be underestimated.
“[Putin] demonstrates in a very disturbing way that declining powers can be at least as disruptive as rising one,” Burns said.
Burns spoke after Biden administration officials sought to play down reports that US intelligence officials had helped Ukraine target and kill Russian generals on the battlefield and sink the Moskva, a Russian ship in the Black Sea.
“It is irresponsible, it’s very risky, it’s dangerous when people talk too much. Whether it’s leaking in private or talking in public about specific intelligence issues,” Burns said.
The CIA director, a former senior diplomat in previous US administrations, added that it would be a “big mistake” to underestimate Ukraine’s own intelligence capabilities.
“This is their country. They have a lot more information than we do and a lot more intelligence than we in the US and amongst our allies do,” he added.
Burns said Putin remained undeterred to keep pressing ahead with the war, saying the second phase of the conflict as it shifted to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine was “at least as risky” or “even riskier” than the first phase where Russia failed to gain control of Kyiv, the capital.
“[Putin] is in a frame of mind in which he doesn’t believe he can afford to lose; so the stakes are quite high in this phase,” Burns said. “I think he’s convinced right now that doubling down . . . will enable him to make progress.”
The CIA director said that even though US intelligence did not see “practical evidence” that Russia was planning to deploy tactical nuclear weapons, “we can’t take lightly those possibilities” given Russia’s sabre-rattling.