In a move that could harden Washington's posture toward Beijing for years, the US intelligence community has characterized relations with China as a global ideological showdown that will not be doused by trade deals or commercial theft crackdowns.
US spy chiefs abruptly shifted their view of the superpower rivalry this week to something much deeper than a contest over markets, technology and geopolitics.
The annual Worldwide Threat Assessment released by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats instead said China is seeking to propagate "authoritarian capitalism" to counter Western liberal democracy, in an echo of the decades-long Cold War.
"Chinese leaders will increasingly seek to assert China's model of authoritarian capitalism as an alternative -- and implicitly superior -- development path abroad, exacerbating great-power competition that could threaten international support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law," it said.
It added the "coming ideological battle" will be marked by "a period of increased Chinese foreign policy activism and a Chinese worldview that links China's domestic vision to its international vision," including the idea that market-oriented authoritarian regimes are superior.
China policy analysts said the assessment marks an important modification of US thinking -- and reflects President Xi Jinping's ideological transformation of Chinese foreign policy.
They also say it goes far beyond the views of Trump, who has treated relations with China as more transactional.
"This is more than just economics," said James McGregor, chairman of China business consultancy APCO Worldwide.
"Now that China is so successful, there is an ideological battle for which system works best," he told AFP.
"There are a lot of poor and developing countries which have looked at what China has accomplished with awe and admiration, and they are wondering if that system will work for them."
Aaron Friedberg, Princeton University professor and China expert, said the shift is significant but not surprising after Xi last year severed the country's decades-old anchor to a non-ideological foreign policy.
"For a long time Chinese officials went out of their way to say that they didn't see themselves as presenting an alternative model," he said.
“Now it is an ideological competition because the Chinese see it that way."