LONDON — China is waging a "cold war" against the United States in an effort to take its place as the leading global power, a top CIA expert on Asia said Friday.
Beijing does not want to go to war with the U.S. but is attempting to undermine Washington's global position by using all avenues available to it, said Michael Collins, deputy assistant director of the CIA's East Asia mission center.
"I would argue ... that what they're waging against us is fundamentally a cold war — a cold war not like we saw during THE Cold War [between the U.S. and the Soviet Union] but a cold war by definition," he told the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.
"The Chinese fundamentally seek to replace the United States as the leading power in the world," Collins added.
While the U.S. remains the world's dominant military and economic power, China now is the world's second-biggest economy and has the largest military.
Relations between the two powers have worsened in recent months, with the U.S. and China imposing tariffs on billions of dollars' worth of each other's goods in a growing tit-for-tat trade war.
President Donald Trump threatened to escalate tensions further Friday, by telling CNBC that he would be willing to slap tariffs on every Chinese good imported to the U.S. if need be.
But diplomatic tensions stretch beyond the escalating trade war.
Washington has repeatedly railed against Beijing for what it says is a deeply entrenched theft of U.S. intellectual property and forced technology transfer from U.S. companies to Chinese competitors, charges Chinese officials deny. It has also criticized China for asserting its dominance in the contested South China Sea.
"I would argue that it's the Crimea of the East," Collins said, referring to Russia's brash annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which was condemned throughout the West.
Collins is not alone in the intelligence community in his concern over growing Chinese influence.
Earlier this week FBI Director Christopher Wray told the security forum that China represents the broadest, most challenging and most significant threat to the U.S.
"For them it is a whole of state effort. It is economic espionage as well as traditional espionage," Wray told the security forum earlier this week, adding that the threat from China is something that cannot be underestimated.
Collins agreed. "The Chinese are increasingly defining a conflict with the U.S. and what we stand behind as a systems conflict," he said, explaining that they were pushing their own form of socialism.
"It sets up a competition with us and what we stand behind far more significantly by any means than what the Russian's could put forward," he added.
Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, agreed with Collins that China posed a different kind of challenge to the United States than Russia. "China is not just a footnote to what we're dealing with with Russia," said Thornton.
Marcel Lettre, former undersecretary of defense for intelligence, who was on the panel with Collins and Thornton agreed that China was using a myriad of different tools to exert its influence.
He noted that China has the second largest defense budget in the world and the largest standing army of ground forces, but said it was also pursuing advances in cyber espionage, artificial intelligence and hyper-sonic technologies.
The warnings came at a time when Washington needs China's support in its negotiations with North Korea to de-nuclearize the peninsular.
It also comes as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Africa Saturday, on a four-nation visit seeking deeper military and economic ties.
China is Africa's largest trading partner and the country opened its first military base on the continent last year in the east African nation of Djibouti.
By comparison Trump has shown little interest in the world's second most populous continent.