The Trump administration has declassified unconfirmed intel that China offered to pay bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

“The Trump administration is declassifying as-yet uncorroborated intelligence, recently briefed to President Trump, that indicates China offered to pay non-state actors in Afghanistan to attack American soldiers,” according to a report from Axios.

“Trump was verbally briefed on the matter by national security adviser Robert O’Brien,” and, “the intelligence was included in the president’s briefing on Dec. 17,” administration officials told Axios.

China has played a key diplomatic role in Afghanistan, including recently inviting a 9-member Taliban delegation to Beijing for a meeting with Deng Xiju, China’s special representative for Afghanistan. One subject of discussion between Chinese officials and the Taliban was the disintegration of the U.S./Taliban peace talks.

“The Chinese special representative said the US-Taliban deal is a good framework for the peaceful solution of the Afghan issue and they support it,” Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban in Qatar, said at the time.

In 2007, it was reported that Britain complained to Beijing about Chinese-made weapons being used by the Taliban. The BBC report quoted a senior Afghan official who said at the time that “Chinese HN-5 anti-aircraft missiles are with the Taleban, we know this… and we are worried where do the Taleban get them, some of these weapons have been made recently in Chinese factories.”

Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund who specializes in China-Afghanistan affairs, told Axios “pursuing peace in Afghanistan is one of the extremely rare areas where the US and China still have a willingness to work together on an area of importance.”

“They know the drawdown is taking place,” he said. “We’re not in the context where anything else needs to happen to US troops in Afghanistan. There is no reason to create additional pressure on US forces.”

A September report from the Pentagon on China noted that “since at least 2016, People’s Armed Police (PAP) forces have likely operated in Tajikistan, patrolling the tri-border region connecting Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and China.”

While there have been reports that China supplied weapons to the Taliban, bounties would be a serious escalation. If confirmed, this intelligence would mark a dramatic and dangerous shift for China and escalate tensions between China and the U.S.

One official told Axios, “The U.S. has evidence that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] attempted to finance attacks on American servicemen by Afghan non-state actors by offering financial incentives or ‘bounties,” and said the National Security Council, “is coordinating a whole-of-government investigation.”

This report comes on the heels of September news reports that Russia had offered Taliban militants bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and after Trump has vowed to amp up pressure on China.

In September, a myriad of national security and intelligence officials said the Russia intelligence was not fully corroborated.

After a recent cyber breach the United States government had been subjected to, and that American officials attributed to Russia, President Trump wrote on Twitter, “Russia, Russia, Russia is the priority chant when anything happens because Lamestream is, for mostly financial reasons, petrified of discussing the possibility that it may be China (it may!)”

Officials did not say when or over what period of time the activity occurred. A Biden transition official did not verify whether Mr. Biden, who now receives official daily intelligence briefings, has been presented with this information.

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe recently wrote a report for the Wall Street Journal where he emphasized that China is the greatest national security threat to U.S. interests.

“The intelligence is clear,” he wrote. “Beijing intends to dominate the U.S. and the rest of the planet economically, militarily and technologically. Many of China’s major public initiatives and prominent companies offer only a layer of camouflage to the activities of the Chinese Communist Party.”

In December, Ratcliffe told Tucker Carlson that, “all of the plans that they have, all of the initiatives made in China, the digital Silk Road, Belt and Road Initiative — those are all thin veneers and facades for which China is going around the world and essentially gaining the influence, power to become the world superpower and supplant the United States in that role.”

China has praised the Belt and Road Initiative in Afghanistan and said they have agreed to “lifting their strategic cooperative partnership to a new level” to “advance bilateral cooperation in various fields in order to jointly benefit the two countries and two peoples”

What this development means for the future of relations between the two nations, and whether these reports can be verified, are two questions likely to leave U.S. national security agencies on edge. There is also the question of what else may come to light in the months and years to come, in our age of anonymous leakers, hackers, whistleblowers, declassified document dumps, and state secrets just a few Freedom of Information Act requests away.

Of the two, a cold war would be preferable to a shooting war. Should the current trade war between the U.S. and China escalate, however, no one, least of all the elected officials in both nations who would be responsible for such a decision, can know where it might lead.

(Contributing journalist, Allegra Nokaj) (Contributing writer, Brooke Bell)