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The writer is former head of MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service
Whatever has happened in parliament (and I offer no comment on the specifics of the current Chinese spying allegations) it is worth noting that security officials have been warning for some time about the increasing intensity of Chinese state intelligence operations against the UK and its allies.
They are surely right. For instance, when it came to attributing cyber attacks, a rough rule of thumb used to be that if the target was political then the culprit was Russia, if economic, it was China. But in a world where the Chinese Communist party (CCP) and President Xi Jinping increasingly prioritise security and control over all things, efforts to control the narrative are taking on an extraterritorial character. Political objectives as well as economic ones are being pursued, not just through the invective of wolf-warrior diplomats, but in the covert space as well.
The fact is that, however clumsily, the CCP is trying covertly to control the way you think about selected issues, just as it seeks to indoctrinate its own people. We find it hard to get our head around such things, which go well beyond our traditional definition of security. But they do real damage, not least because technology now offers a new and powerful means of amplifying disinformation, or, as it was called in the past, propaganda. And remember, this is an asymmetric vulnerability. While democracies need at least some untainted facts to operate effectively, autocracies do not.
The good news is that the tools exist to mount an effective response to future interference attempts. Alongside our widely respected security and intelligence services, we now have the National Security Act, which came into force this year. This is something of a game-changer: it clarifies the boundaries and will make it much harder for the intelligence services of hostile states and their agents to operate in the UK with impunity.
So, while there is no scope for complacency, nor should we panic. Watching the spy balloon fly over the US was a depressing experience. We will never know if the episode represents cock-up or conspiracy (though a career in intelligence generally leads me to favour the former explanation.) But what it demonstrated beyond doubt was the lack of political space available to either side to calm the situation, as well as the absence of effective communication channels. This is dangerous stuff. Could John F Kennedy have engineered a peaceful solution to the Cuban missile crisis, with Fox News on in the background 24 hours a day?
Calls for our foreign secretary to refuse to talk to his Chinese counterparts are wrong. Talking and chewing gum at the same time is not to betray our values, it’s common sense. And, by the way, it is exactly what China does to us. So how can we do this? Good policy will simultaneously confront, compete and co-operate with China.
We must confront attempts to undermine our democracy and clearly communicate human rights concerns. But we should think about how to make complaints stick: performative outrage without serious expectation of changing China’s behaviour sounds weak. China only respects strength. When calling out cyber attacks, for example, making announcements together with our allies, using common attribution standards, is the way to cut through.
Competition is real, even if it suits China to act as if it isn’t. This has many dimensions, but the most important is in the technology space. Xi has worked out, correctly, that the best way of guaranteeing the continued rule of the CCP is to win the innovation race with the US and the collective west. The aim is little short of dominance of the key emerging technologies: quantum computing, AI and synthetic biology, among others. If they succeed, concerns about spying will seem like small beer. Privacy simply won’t exist. And nor will security.
I think talk of wholesale decoupling from China is frankly nuts. But I am a fan of “de-risking”. In defined areas, working together as democracies, we must galvanise innovation to preserve technological sovereignty. The Aukus submarine deal includes wider provisions to co-operate on advanced technology; I hope this will prove a successful example. Surely Vladimir Putin’s determination to weaponise our dependence on Russian gas teaches us the importance of supply chains we can control? This is not a competition the UK can afford to opt out of. Creating more, larger tech companies from our vibrant start-up scene would certainly help.
Finally, we need to co-operate. Much bilateral trade remains benign and can make both sides richer. We live on one planet, and global problems such as climate change require global solutions. And cutting off dialogue only creates higher risks of misunderstanding.
Demonstrating the need to undermine democracy is not a sign of strength, but of weakness. A preference for engagement, on the other hand, is not a sign of weakness: it’s a sign of strength.