China’s overconfidence and belief in its own anti-western propaganda has put Beijing at risk of “miscalculation” which could threaten international security, the head of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service has warned.
Richard Moore said that adapting to a world dominated by the rise of China was now the “single greatest priority” for his spy agency, also known as MI6, in his first public speech since taking over the role a year ago.
“The Chinese intelligence services are highly capable and continue to conduct large-scale espionage operations against the UK and our allies,” Moore, who is also known by the code name “C”, told an audience in London on Tuesday. “Beijing’s growing military strength and the [Chinese Communist] party’s desire to resolve the Taiwan issue, by force if necessary, also pose a serious challenge to global stability and peace.”
The comments mark a striking change from the British government’s previous hesitancy in addressing the threat posed by China. The integrated review of defence and security policy, published earlier this year, emphasised a “tilt” in defence priorities towards Asia but also stressed that Britain would be seeking “deeper trade links and more Chinese investment”.
However, Moore on Tuesday accused Beijing of attempting to “distort public discourse and political decision-making” and suggested that China was exporting technology that enables a “web of authoritarian control” around the world.
“The Chinese Communist party leadership increasingly favour bold and decisive action particularly on national security grounds,” he said. “Beijing believes its own propaganda about western frailties and underestimates Washington’s resolve. The risk of Chinese miscalculation through overconfidence is real.”
While the spy chief did not link his miscalculation comments directly to Taiwan, western defence and security leaders are increasingly concerned about Xi Jinping’s stated determination to “reunify” the island — which China’s president considers part of his country’s sovereign territory — with the mainland during his leadership.
Moore also warned about Beijing’s attempts to set what he called “debt and data traps” for other countries, which he said could increase their vulnerability to political coercion. Sri Lanka was forced to hand over its strategic port of Hambanota to China in 2017, having been unable to repay debts from Chinese state-controlled entities that were used to finance the port development.
In an interview just ahead of the speech, the spy chief expressed concerns that Beijing was seeking to “harvest data from around the world” via surveillance technologies. “If you allow another country to gain access to really critical data about your society then, over time, that will erode your sovereignty, you will no longer have control over that data,” Moore told the BBC. “That’s something in the UK we are very alive to and we have taken various measures to defend against.”
He argued in the speech that MI6 would have to give up some of its traditional secrecy and seek help from technology companies in order to compete with developments in artificial intelligence and quantum computing that are already being exploited by adversaries.
In a direct warning to Moscow, he said it should be “in no doubt of our allies’ support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”. His comments echoed those of Nato foreign ministers, including the UK’s Liz Truss, attending a summit in Latvia to discuss the massing of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border.
On the outlook for international terrorism, he said the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan had provided a “morale boost” to militants. “I won’t soft-soap it: the threat we face will likely grow now we have left Afghanistan.”