CIA Director William Burns said that Chinese President Xi Jinping's ambitions towards Taiwan should not be underestimated, despite the performance of Russia's military in Ukraine probably giving him pause.
The US knows “as a matter of intelligence” that Mr Xi had ordered his military to be ready to move against Taiwan by 2027, America's spy chief said.
“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,” Mr Burns told an event at Georgetown University in Washington on Thursday.
“Our assessment at CIA is that I wouldn't underestimate President Xi's ambitions with regard to Taiwan,” he said.
He added that the Chinese leader was likely to be “surprised and unsettled” and trying to draw lessons by the “very poor performance” of the Russian military and its weapons systems in Ukraine.
In October last year, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday, said Mr Xi had set a timeline for Beijing to reunify with Taiwan by 2027 — by force, if necessary — but he warned that the move could come much sooner, possibly even this year.
Mr Burns's comments came as news was breaking from the Pentagon that a Chinese “surveillance balloon” had been spotted in US skies.
The suspected spy vessel, which Beijing says is a weather balloon, has sent tension soaring between the US and China. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday postponed a planned trip to Beijing.
The CIA director made no mention of the balloon but called China the “biggest geopolitical challenge” currently faced by the US.
“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,” he said.
“It's a global competition in ways that could be even more intense than competition with the Soviets was.”
US rhetoric on China has escalated sharply in recent years. This week, a top US Air Force general said he expected the two superpowers to be at war by 2025.
In 2021, US Navy Admiral Phil Davidson told Congress of his concerns over China's ambitions to overtake the US and said Beijing might strike Taiwan before 2027.
Reuters contributed to this report