‘I wouldn’t underestimate’ Xi’s ambitions for Taiwan, says CIA director

Intelligence shows Chinese president Xi Jinping has instructed his country’s army to be “ready by 2027 to conduct a successful invasion” of Taiwan, CIA Director William Burns said this week, though he cautioned that it was not clear whether Xi had actually decided to use military force for unification.  

“Our assessment at CIA is that I wouldn’t underestimate President Xi’s ambitions with regard to Taiwan,” Burns said, adding that Xi had watched Russian president Vladimir Putin’s experience in Ukraine “very carefully,” and come away “a little bit unsettled and sobered” by Moscow’s performance on the battlefield.  

“We know as a matter of intelligence that he’s instructed the People’s Liberation Army to be ready by 2027 to conduct a successful invasion,” he continued. “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 made public remarks while accepting an award at Georgetown University on Thursday.   

News of a Chinese surveillance balloon drifting in U.S. airspace first emerged during the event, but the CIA chief did not directly address the development. The CIA declined to comment on the balloon Friday, deferring inquiries to the Defense Department.  

A former career diplomat who took the helm at CIA in March 2021, Burns has in his tenure established two new mission centers at the agency focused on China and foreign technology challenges. The China mission center is currently the only country-specific mission center at CIA. 

On Thursday, he reiterated that China remained “the biggest geopolitical challenge” that the United States would face in the coming decades, and that new technologies were “the main arena” for competition with Beijing.  

“Competition with China is unique in its scale, in that it really unfolds over just about every domain – not just military and ideological, but economic, technological, everything from cyberspace to space itself, as well,” Burns said.  

He stressed the importance of the U.S. accelerating development of its own technological capabilities and deepening its alliances overseas. He quipped that his claim to fame as CIA director would be that he was the first to visit the Pacific Island countries, including Fiji.  

Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced it would expand the U.S. military presence in the Philippines, from which American troops could be more quickly dispatched to Taiwan.  

Burns on Thursday said effective deterrence of armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait remained a top priority, especially as tensions in the region have intensified.  

“I think it’s very much in our interest, as a policy matter in the United States, to make clear our commitment to the status quo, to make clear that we’re not interested as a country in changing that status quo, that we’re deeply opposed to anyone trying to change that unilaterally, especially by the use of force,” Burns said, adding that conflict over Taiwan would be “deeply unfortunate…for everyone involved, including China.”  

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