To achieve its aims in the UK, the Chinese Communist Party co-opts every state institution, company and citizen. This ‘whole-of-state’ approach means China can aggressively target the UK,
We commend the action now being taken by His Majesty's Government to counter interference by China - it is encouraging that the Government has finally woken up to the grave threat this poses to our national security.
Report's Summary of Strategic Context
- China’s national imperative is to ensure that the Chinese Communist Party remains in power. Everything else is subservient to that.
- However, it is its ambition at a global level - to become a technological and economic superpower, on which other countries are reliant - that poses a national security threat to the UK.
- China views the UK through the optic of the struggle between the United States and China. When combined with the UK’s membership of significant international bodies, and the perception of the UK as an international opinion-former, these factors would appear to place the UK just below China’s top priority targets.
- China views the UK as being of use in its efforts to mute international criticism and to gain economically: this, in the short term at least, will temper China’s targeting of the UK.
- China is seeking both political influence and economic advantage in order to achieve its aims in relation to the UK. It seeks to acquire information and influence elites and decision-makers, and to acquire Intellectual Property using covert and overt methods to gain technological supremacy.
- China almost certainly maintains the largest state intelligence apparatus in the world. The nature and scale of the Chinese Intelligence Services are - like many aspects of China’s government - hard to grasp for the outsider, due to the size of the bureaucracy, the blurring of lines of accountability between party and state officials, a partially decentralised system, and a lack of verifiable information.
- The Chinese Intelligence Services target the UK and its overseas interests prolifically and aggressively. While they seek to obtain classified information, they are willing to utilise intelligence officers and agents to collect open source information indiscriminately - given the vast resources at their disposal. In more ways than one, the broad remit of the Chinese Intelligence Services poses a significant challenge to Western attempts to counter their activity.
- To compound the problem, it is not just the Chinese Intelligence Services: the Chinese Communist Party co-opts every state institution, company and citizen. This ‘whole-of-state’ approach means China can aggressively target the UK, yet the scale of the activity makes it more difficult to detect.
Requires Cross-Government Approach
- China is an economic power, and this cannot be ignored in formulating the UK’s policy towards China. Balancing the tension between security and prosperity requires dexterity, and we understand that there are a number of difficult trade-offs involved.
- The length of this Inquiry has allowed us to see the development of the China policy within Government and we are reassured that, belatedly, the security aspects are now being given prominence - notably more so after the pandemic.
- It is nevertheless concerning that the security community, and the Government in general, were aware of many of these issues several years ago and yet we are only now beginning to see the introduction of measures taken to protect UK sovereign interests. The lack of action to protect our assets from a known threat was a serious failure, and one from which the UK may feel the consequences for years to come.
- Even now, HMG is focusing on short-term or acute threats, and failing to think long term - unlike China - and China has historically been able to take advantage of this. The Government must adopt a longer-term planning cycle in regard to the future security of the UK if it is to face Chinese ambitions, which are not reset every political cycle. This will mean adopting policies that may well take years to stand up and require multi-year spending commitments - something that may well require Opposition support - but the danger posed by doing too little, too late, in this area is too significant to fall prey to party politics.
- Tackling the threats posed by China requires the UK to have a clear strategy on China, which is forward thinking, joined up and utilises a ‘whole-of-government’ approach. Work to develop such a strategy may now be in train, but there is still a long way to go.
- We commend the action now being taken by the Government to counter interference by China - it is encouraging that the Government has finally woken up to the grave threat this poses to our national security.
- However, it is worrying that ‘policy ownership’ of this national security activity, rather than being gripped at the centre by the Cabinet Office, has instead been devolved across the Government - in many instances to departments with no security remit or expertise. We have not been kept informed of these developments and, despite numerous requests, are not permitted to scrutinise this activity.
- As at 2021, the Government had a plethora of plans that laid out its China policies. The interaction between these documents has required a great deal of unpicking, and we have been surprised at the fact that changes in one document do not always lead to consequent changes in others. The slow speed at which strategies, and policies, are developed and implemented also leaves a lot to be desired - at the time of writing we await to see what impact the National Security Adviser’s review of processes will have on the China policy area, but we would certainly hope it will become more coherent.
- It is also clear that this defensive effort requires a cross-government approach. However, this transfer of responsibility will need to be a well-thought-out, gradual process with adequate support provided to the departments and some degree of control retained at the centre. HMG needs to ensure that those departments not traditionally associated with security are properly resourced with security expertise, properly supported and properly scrutinised.
- Tackling the threat in relation to Academia could have been an example of the Fusion Doctrine working seamlessly - with each policy department clearly contributing to an overall goal. But, as in so many areas, the devolution of responsibility for security to policy departments means that the ball is being dropped on security. Policy departments still do not have the understanding needed and have no plan to tackle it.
This report was written and published by the Cabinet Office of His Majesty's Government on 14 September 2023 in response to Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee report of July 2023.