By Simone McCarthy, CNN
A set of highly classified Pentagon documents that leaked online in recent weeks in an apparent major security breach reveal American intelligence gathering on its key partners, adversaries and competitors — including China.
Many of the documents pertain to the battlefield in Ukraine and the Russian war effort, with some showing the degree to which the United States has penetrated the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian mercenary organization Wagner Group.
But a handful of the documents — which provide only a snapshot of US intelligence gathering — also indicate some of the intelligence defense officials are gathering about China, the country Washington has deemed the “most serious long-term challenge to the international order.”
CNN has reviewed 53 leaked documents, all of which appear to have been produced between mid-February and early March.
Many of the documents, which US officials say are authentic, had markings indicating that they had been produced by the Joint Staff’s intelligence arm, known as J2, and appear to be briefing documents.
The documents reviewed by CNN contain more references to Russian activities than China, but they do contain insights into US intelligence gathering on Beijing’s activities, particularly in relation to US concerns about China’s potential involvement in the war in Ukraine.
China and Ukraine
One key mention of China in the intelligence relates to a longstanding American concern that China — a close Russian strategic partner — would provide support for the Kremlin’s war effort in Ukraine.
An entry in one document says that China could use Ukrainian strikes on targets deep inside Russia “as an opportunity to cast NATO as the aggressor, and may increase its aid to Russia if it deems the attacks were significant.”
“China would respond more strongly and most likely increase the scale and scope of materiel it is willing to provide Russia if Ukrainian strikes hit a location of high strategic value or appeared to target senior Russian leaders,” the document said.
A significant Ukrainian attack that used US or NATO members’ weapons would probably be seen by Beijing as “as indicative that Washington was directly responsible for escalating the conflict” and could possibly be “further justification for China to provide Russia with lethal aid,” the document said.
US officials have repeatedly and publicly warned Beijing against supplying aid to Russia for its war effort — and earlier this year said China was considering providing the Kremlin with lethal aid.
The US and its allies have not said that China has supplied such aid, and Beijing has denied the claim. It has, however, bolstered economic ties with Russia over the past year.
In response to a request for comment from CNN, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s office said China has always “adhered to an objective and fair stance on the Ukrainian issue” and acted as a “proponent of political resolution of the crisis and promoter of peace talks.”
“The cooperation between China and Russia is open and above board, without targeting any third party and without receiving interference or coercion from any third party,” the statement said.
“In terms of military exports, China has always adopted a cautious and responsible attitude, and has always controlled the export of dual-use items according to laws and regulations,” the statement said, adding that China’s stance was in contrast to “some countries’ double standards on arms sales and their practice of adding fuel to the Ukrainian crisis.”
In separate comments at a press briefing Wednesday, a ministry spokesperson said media reports about the leaked documents showed the US is “conducting indiscriminate, secret” monitoring of other countries, including its allies.
“The United States should explain this to the international community,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said in response to a question on the subject.
US officials have previously commented about not wanting to give Ukraine long-range missile systems over fears that Kyiv will use them to strike inside Russia. Ukraine has pledged not to use US-provided weapons to do so.
Ukraine typically does not comment on questions about its involvement in the limited number of attacks that have taken place inside Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea since the start of the war.
Intel on China
Additional references to China in the documents show US monitoring of China’s weapons development and naval activity.
One notes a February 25 flight test of a “developmental” DF-27, which it describes as an intermediate range ballistic missile-class multirole hypersonic glide vehicle. The weapon has a “high probability” of penetrating US missile defense, the document says.
Missiles with hypersonic glide vehicles are designed to fly more than five times the speed of sound and can maneuver in flight, making them almost impossible to shoot down, according to experts. China is considered to have among the world’s most advanced hypersonic weapon development programs.
Another entry includes notes on a recent People’s Liberation Army Navy deployment, which the document notes was the first time the Yushen LHA-31 helicopter-carrying assault ship was included in an extended area deployment.
Other documents suggest that the US is gathering information about how other countries are interacting with China using signals intelligence.
Signals intelligence includes intercepted communications and is broadly defined by the National Security Agency as “intelligence derived from electronic signals and systems used by foreign targets, such as communications systems, radars, and weapons systems.”
One document attributed to a signals intelligence report said that Jordan’s Foreign Ministry in late February planned to assure Beijing about its interest in a continued economic relationship, after Beijing reportedly complained that Chinese companies were not involved in the country’s 5G network rollout.
Another said Nicaragua was negotiating with a Chinese company for the construction of a deepwater port on its Caribbean coast, attributing this information to signals intelligence.
The brief also said, without providing a source, that Nicaragua “probably would consider offering Beijing naval access in exchange for economic investment.” China has not stated aspirations to acquire overseas basing or military access in the country, it added.
The Justice Department said it is investigating how the documents ended up on social media sites.
The US Department of Defense in a statement over the weekend said it “continues to review and assess” the validity of the documents, while standing up an “interagency effort” to assess their impact on the US and its allies and partners.
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CNN’s Beijing bureau and Brad Lendon contributed reporting.