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LONDON – The UK realized it was going to need more than James Bond to counter Chinese influence and espionage.
Beijing’s massive state-backed efforts to infiltrate UK companies and research institutes in the race to develop key technologies do not usually amount to traditional espionage. And Britain has realized that its response must go far beyond intelligence.
Matthew Henderson, former UK Ambassador to China and now Associate Researcher at the Council on Geostrategy, says the vast majority of China’s information gathering in the UK “takes place under the open sky” at institutions such as than R&D intensive companies. manage sensitive innovations such as graphene, encryption systems and hypersonic technology.
“If we had been clearer about whether China was really a win-win partner or all the time a very strong systemic competitor, we might have made fewer mistakes,” he said. “They are doing what they can do because we made it easy for them.”
Changing that means going beyond ghosts. “The message is starting to spread now that this is not just an issue that can be left to intelligence and security agencies,” said Nigel Inkster, formerly at MI6 and currently senior advisor on security. cybersecurity and China at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Part of that is new anti-hostile states legislation due to be unveiled by the government next month with the opening of the new parliamentary session by Queen Elizabeth II. Details are scarce, but the proposed new law would require UK nationals working for foreign countries to register their activities or risk a criminal conviction. A wide range of professions, including lawyers and lobbyists, will be subject to the rules.
The registry aims to counter threats from authoritarian states such as Russia and China, and should be modeled on the US Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), passed in 1938 in an attempt to counter the propaganda of Nazi Germany in the country.
Supporters of the reform argue that the current law on official secrets is insufficient. To prosecute UK agents who do not work for the civil service and help foreign states, the government needs to prove that their disclosures have caused harm – a high legal bar.
The Inkster and Chinese hawks in the British parliament want the new rules to have bite. The first argues that all UK nationals working for other countries should have to disclose these activities, with the possible exception of Britain’s so-called five-eyed security allies – US, Canada , Australia and New Zealand – since they signed agreements preventing them from doing so. spying on each other. But Bob Seely, a Tory MP who is hawkish towards China, believes that dealing with both friendly and hostile countries could hurt Britain’s diplomatic relations.
Luke de Pulford, coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, has warned that the British government could face opposition from MPs if the proposal is not tough enough.
“If it is not difficult enough to defend the UK against Chinese Communist Party interference, there will be another row in Westminster,” de Pulford said.
In the meantime, the Chinese government is also strengthening its laws and regulations against espionage and espionage. On Monday, he introduced new anti-espionage regulations allowing the all-powerful national security apparatus to demand specific measures for businesses and organizations that authorities consider prone to foreign infiltration.
Under the new regulations, the UK is considered a “high-risk” destination, with Chinese business personnel requiring training before traveling abroad and debriefing upon return.
Much has changed since China became a strategic competitor with the West. The definition of national security, which for most of the last century covered military capabilities, has now extended to all critical infrastructure, from nuclear facilities to the water supply network.
China’s influence and the scope of information collection has broadened significantly to include commercially sensitive data; huge databases of personal information; health records; Technological innovations; and intelligence on human rights activists, Inkster said.
In a rare speech last week, Jeremy Fleming, director of GCHQ, the British communications intelligence agency, warned that China is the greatest threat to Western countries when it comes to cybersecurity and control of future digital technologies. that underpin their savings and security.
“The threat posed by Russia’s activity is like finding a vulnerability on a specific application on your phone – it’s potentially serious, but you can probably use an alternative,” Fleming said at the annual security conference. Vincent Briscoe from Imperial College this year. “However, the problem is that China’s size and technological weight means it has the potential to control the global operating system.”
But the real problem is the volume. “The breadth and size of Chinese collection efforts are unprecedented and have, I would say, in themselves a strategic dimension that is not normally the case with espionage,” Inkster said. “What China is doing is bending gravity in its consequences. The information that we want to steal from China in this country is far less than the information that they want to steal from us. “
The Center for National Infrastructure Protection, part of MI5, warned earlier this month that foreign spies had used LinkedIn to target 10,000 officials in the UK and abroad who have access to sensitive information . These platforms make it very easy for hostile intelligence agencies to identify and recruit nationals working in fields of interest to them.
They also reveal contact data and clues about potential motivations. Common goals include people working in defense and security sectors, academia, government officials, pharmaceutical and technology industries. “Professional networking websites collectively are very significant vulnerabilities,” Inkster said.
The motivation behind modern influencer operations is also harder to spot, Seely said. “For me, the question is how nowadays foreign countries, using formal or informal actors and partners, be they companies or individuals, can manipulate and subvert Western democracy and politics”, did he declare. “It goes beyond simple lobbying. The Soviets did not work with the big financial players, they did not hire Westerners to sit on the board of Gazprom. They were much more ideological and, in that sense, they were easier to follow.
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