China is waging “a cold war” against the United States, a senior U.S. intelligence official argued Friday.

“At the end of the day, the Chinese fundamentally seek to replace the United States as the leading power in the world,” Michael Collins, the CIA’s deputy assistant director for the East Asia Mission Center, said during the Aspen Security Forum. “What they're waging against us is fundamentally a cold war.”

Collins took care to distinguish between the Chinese people, on the one hand, and the threat emerging from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime.

But he also argued that China’s ruling Communist Party has unleashed a multifaceted campaign to diminish American influence and expand China’s international power.

“They want every country around the world — when it's deciding its interests, its decisions on policy issues — to first and foremost side with China, not the United States,” Collins said. “Because the Chinese are increasingly defining a conflict with the United States and what we stand behind [as] a systems conflict.”

U.S. officials have grown increasingly wary of China in recent years, in part due to intelligence assessments that revised the traditionally-cooperative posture towards the Communist regime’s emergence as a world power. China accelerated that change in national security circles through by claiming sovereignty over the South China Sea and deploying military assets to defend that claim; more recently, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have expressed concern about Chinese programs in the American education systems.

Collins shares such concerns about “interference in our thought,” as he termed Communist propaganda.

“They are fundamentally trying to encourage those of us — the Chinese diaspora more broadly — those with whom they have influence to think their way about governance,” he said. “And not perhaps the way we would advocate or we would prefer, the United States would prefer we think about things like the liberal international order.”

The ideological component is just one aspect of the competition. “[This is not] a cold war not like what we saw during the Cold War, but a cold war by definition,” Collins said. “[China] exploits all avenues of power — licit and illicit; public and private; economic and military — to undermine the standing of your rival relative to your own standing without resorting to conflict.”

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