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The ISC report on China: Progress, yet consolidation needed

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report issued on 13th July chose a neutral title, simply ‘China’. But its judgements are trenchant: on the threat posed to the United Kingdom’s (UK) systems and way of life by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); on His Majesty’s (HM) Government’s inadequate response; and on HM Government’s failure to accord sufficient importance to the ISC’s role of oversight.

In illuminating the overall intelligence and security threat and HM Government’s response, the report gives case studies of the threat to academia, to industry and technology, and to civil nuclear energy. An annex on the CCP’s response to, and use of, Covid-19 avoids the debate on its origins, but – rightly – points out the damage caused by the CCP’s failure to share information and to cooperate. It also condemns propaganda suggesting that the virus’ origins lay outside the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) and considers how to mitigate such behaviour in the future.

Even if the report is late – work started in 2019 – its publication is well-timed. After Covid-19 and, one hopes, the end of prime ministerial and ministerial musical chairs, political stability should allow greater concentration on the biggest external threat faced by the UK.

It is also a highly informative report. Even for those without the security clearance allowing them to read the many redactions, it sets out comprehensively the threat from the CCP’s intelligence gathering. Particularly important are the expositions of the ‘whole-of-state’ and often overt nature of the CCP approach. Security services, governments and the public are used to KGB-type espionage and subversion threats. The Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) and military intelligence do indeed represent an enormously well-resourced traditional attack. But the United Front Work Department or Chinese students and companies, among others, are also important. Under national security laws, the CCP requires organisations and individuals to pass over information when requested by the state. And laws aside, pressure on an individual’s future or on families back in the PRC ensures the active acquisition of information targeted by the CCP. 

The ISC also looked at the problem of wider interference, which did not early on fall under the remit of the Security Service. HM Government left it to ‘policy departments’, which did not have ‘the necessary resources, expertise or knowledge of the threat to investigate and counter China’s approach…[and] may not previously have been looking for it.’

The report rightly underlines the overriding importance of protecting Britain’s science and technology. In Chinese the word qingbao [情报] covers both ‘intelligence’ and ‘information’. Hoovering up the latest science and technology, whether through a PhD student downloading computers surreptitiously, or by buying start-up companies with new technology, or by paying UK academics to carry out research, can be just as, if not more, harmful to Britain’s long-term security and economic well-being than a political spy. The erosion of the distinction between civil and military uses for technology, or the use of new technology by the CCP to repress or abuse human rights, increases the potency of the science and technology threat. 

Despite its critical edge, the report does show that in the eight years since the trumpeting by David Cameron and George Osborne, former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer respectively, of the ‘Golden Era’ of UK-PRC relations, HM Government has recognised the true nature of the CCP’s global ambitions and the need to defend UK interests against them. This was underlined by Sir Richard Moore, the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, in a speech in Prague on 19th July. 

HM Government has increased the intelligence services’ PRC resources, including the setting up of a Joint State Threat Assessment Team (JSTAT) under the Security Service. It has reorganised responsibility for countering the threat by instituting changes to other Whitehall departments, including the creation of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. Among other measures, Huawei equipment is to be removed from all 5G systems by the end of 2027. A National Security Investment Act sets out to protect British technology by preventing the acquisition of companies in 17 areas. The Research Collaboration Advice Team advises research institutions and universities on the national security risks linked to international research.

The National Security Act was passed on 11th July. While it remains to be seen how it will be implemented, its provisions appear to go a long way in plugging some serious gaps identified in the ISC report, particularly regarding treasonous behaviour not previously covered in the Officials Secrets Act (in the past, as the ISC said, ‘it is not an offence to be a covert agent of a foreign power’) and foreign political interference (through the setting up of a Foreign Activities and Foreign Influence Registration Scheme).

Additionally, amendments to the Procurement Bill will ‘investigate suppliers who may pose a risk to national security, and assess whether companies should be barred from public procurements’ as well as ‘ban suppliers from specific sectors’. And ‘The new National Security Unit for Procurement will…respond swiftly to emerging threats, such as companies looking to win public contracts in order to gain access to sensitive information or sites…The specialist team [will] work across government’. These provisions are particularly important, not least because of the threat from Chinese cellular (IoT) modules, a threat greater than that posed by Huawei to 5G, yet one still inadequately recognised.

Perhaps the greatest need is for an equivalent of the Covid-19 ‘SAGE Committee’, to give advice to academia and businesses on which elements of science and technology and with which Chinese organisations and individuals it is inappropriate to cooperate.

But while there has been improvement, there is no room for self-congratulation. Legislation is only as effective as its implementation. Moreover, the pace of change has been, if not glacial, then snail-like. Science and technology is the main threat, and while changes in technology are measured in months, government action takes years. On the broader espionage threat, ‘The length of time it has taken to reform the Official Secrets Acts is unconscionable.’ 

The ISC report is especially scathing about HM Government’s record in civil nuclear energy. Adjectives such as ‘astonishing’, ‘obfuscatory’, and ‘unacceptable’ litter its conclusions, which centre on the risk of allowing Chinese access to critical national infrastructure, thereby facilitating espionage and creating dangerous dependency.

Transparency and publicity are surely useful weapons in the battle against ‘covert, coercive and corrupt[ing]’ interference, yet the government seems reluctant to use them. The many asterisks marking redactions in the ISC report will have been at the insistence of HM Government departments. While many are necessary, surely a lighter touch would have been possible without tilting the balance dangerously between security and raising awareness. For example, the case of three MSS officers in the UK posing as ‘journalists’ who were expelled in 2020 could surely have been mentioned, with perhaps some detail of why. Can the public really only be told of the headings of three out of seven of the areas relating to the PRC upon which MI5 are working? Or to take the case of JSTAT, it has been in existence for six years, but mentioned openly only once three years after being set up. Surely, more could have been said in those years about JSTAT and by JSTAT to warn earlier of the threat from the CCP. It is tempting to observe that even the CCP Politburo meetings put out a summary of discussions after each meeting.

There remain significant gaps in HM Government’s armour. 

One relates to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, where the ISC rightly identifies the dangers of ex-ministers and senior civil servants being used by CCP-controlled companies to influence HM Government to the UK’s disadvantage. It calls on the Cabinet Office to ‘update the guidelines in relation to intelligence and security matters, including with particular reference to China, and ensure that their implementation is strictly enforced’, something which this author has been advocating for some years.

Perhaps the greatest need is for an equivalent of the Covid-19 ‘SAGE Committee’, to give advice to academia and businesses on which elements of science and technology and with which Chinese organisations and individuals it is inappropriate to cooperate. The Research Collaboration Advice Team, established in 2021, is an inadequate attempt to do this, lacking resources, expertise and necessary powers. As the National Cyber Security Centre told the ISC committee in July 2019: ‘at the moment Government has no way of stopping a university collaborating with a Chinese Professor or a Chinese company.’ The NSIA also is unable to pick up many cases where the PRC buys up or into start-up companies with a view to obtaining technology which might have military or repressive uses. Behind any such ‘SAGE Committee’ there would need to be a unit able to identify threats, individuals, or companies with connections to Chinese defence and security interests. It is not clear whether the new Investment Security Unit under the Cabinet Office has such a wide remit.

In its April 2019 report Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee called on HM Government to produce a China strategy. The ISC report underlines the same point: ‘When we put this [a lack of a China strategy] to the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) of HM Government’s China policy in July 2019, he admitted that the “China Framework” (the strategy on China) was a relatively new development and “a work in progress”’ – a phrase whose echoes of the television programme ‘Yes, Minister’ are borne out by an absence four years later.

This perhaps is the deepest lesson to be drawn from HM Government’s performance as it has moved from the ‘Golden Era’ to the ‘Threat Era’ in its relations with the PRC, or more precisely, with the CCP. It has been slow in recognising the nature of the CCP and the importance of having a unified, openly disseminated and implemented ‘whole-of-government’ strategy for dealing with a ‘whole-of-state’ threat.

Charles Parton is an Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He spent 22 years of his 37-year diplomatic career in the British Diplomatic Service working in or on China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

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