UK’s Response to Chinese Threat ‘Completely Inadequate,’ Report Says

UK’s Response to Chinese Threat ‘Completely Inadequate,’ Report Says
The union flag and the flag of the People's Republic of China, on March 2, 2015. (Arthur Edwards/The Sun/PA Media)
Lily Zhou

The UK government has acted too late to tackle the risks posed by the Chinese communist regime and the response has been “completely inadequate,” a report said.

The report, published by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) of Parliament, said China has managed to overtly “penetrate every sector of the UK’s economy” through takeovers, mergers, and interactions with British academia and industry.

It also said the UK is high on Beijing’s list of targets for espionage and interference, given the UK’s global influence and its relationship with the United States.

The scathing report criticized the government and security agencies for their “serious failure” in protecting UK assets and negligence in tackling the Chinese interference activities in the UK.

It also said Whitehall’s approach to the threat of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is still inadequately resourced, incoherent, and short-sighted.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the government will consider the committee’s recommendations and publish a full response “in due course,“ but suggested the report is not up-to-date as his government has ”already taken actions” since the ISC took the bulk of its evidence in 2020.

But committee members dismissed the suggestion that the report is out-of-date.

ISC chairman Sir Julian Lewis told a press conference that the committee had to have a cut-off point for taking evidence, adding, “That does not mean to say that we are not continually in dialogue and receiving quarterly reports, for example, from all the intelligence agencies that cover all these matters.”

Security minister Tom Tugendhat, who was a vocal critic of the government’s China policy before becoming a minister last year, said the UK has “woken up in time” to the CCP threat.

Noting that he had raised “very similar issues” when he was the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. Tugendhat told broadcasters the ISC report is “important” and needs to be taken seriously.

In the 222-page report (pdf), the committee said the Chinese regime sees the UK in the lense of its struggle with the United States.

This, combined with the UK’s membership of significant international bodies and its perception as an international opinion-former, place the UK “just below China’s top priority targets” of espionage and interference, the report said.

The report highlighted the CCP’s outreach to British academia, industry, and critical infrastructure such as nuclear power.

In academia, the CCP “exerts influence over institutions by leveraging fees and funding, over individual UK academics through inducements and intimidation, over Chinese students by monitoring and controlling, and over think tanks through coercion,” the report said.

Academia also provided a convenient gateway for the CCP to steal intellectual property, but there’s “still no comprehensive list of the areas of sensitive UK research which need protecting,” the report said.

In British industries, the CCP “uses all possible legitimate routes to acquire UK technology, intellectual property, and data,” yet such acquisitions have been “welcomed” by the government for economic reasons, the report said, warning of a “nightmare scenario where China steals blueprints, sets standards, and builds products, exerting political and economic influence at every step.”

While acknowledging the government’s actions in recent years, such as the passing of the National Security and Investment Act (NSI), which gives the government power to intervene in acquisitions that pose national security risks, members were “surprised” at the length of time the government had taken to put in place a process to identify and protect UK assets, the report said, calling it “a serious failure and one that the UK may feel the consequences of for years to come.”

The committee also said it’s “concerned” over the lack of parliamentary oversight of the NSI decision-making process and the workings of the Investment Security Unit.

Whole-of-State Approach

Besides overt influence campaigns, Chinese intelligence services also “target the UK and its overseas interests prolifically and aggressively” by collecting both classified and open-source information, the report said.

On top of its world-largest state intelligence apparatus, the CCP is using a “whole-of-state” approach in which any Chinese organization or citizen may be willingly or unwillingly co-opted into espionage and interference operations overseas, making it more difficult for UK intelligence agencies to detect, the report said.

However, resources at British security agencies were diverted “time and again” to tackle terrorist threats arising from Syria and elsewhere, “until recently, our agencies did not even recognize that they had any responsibility for countering Chinese interference activity in the UK,” the report said.

The ISC said the level of resources dedicated to tackling the Chinese threat has been “completely inadequate,” and there’s “no evidence” that government departments have the expertise or knowledge of the threat to investigate and counter the Chinese whole-of-state approach.

The committee recommended a multi-year spending review to allow agencies to develop long-term, strategic programmes on China, which it said will “likely require opposition support.”

“The danger posed by doing too little too late in this area is too significant to play politics with,” the ISC added.

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