Britain’s intelligence community believes the UK needs to reassess its relationship with China after the coronavirus crisis subsides and consider if tighter controls are needed over high-tech and other strategic industries.
They reckon China will become more assertive in defending its one-party model as having successfully tackled the pandemic and that Boris Johnson and other ministers will have to take a “realistic view” and consider how the UK responds.
Issues being aired are whether the UK wants to restrict takeovers of key companies in high-tech areas such as digital communications and artificial intelligence and whether it should reduce Chinese students’ access to research at universities and elsewhere.
But MI6, the foreign intelligence service, and MI5, its domestic equivalent, still believe it was correct to allow Huawei access to Britain’s 5G network, capped at 35% – a decision made by Johnson in January – although the new emphasis on China may make that decision increasingly hard to defend as Conservative rebels press for a rethink.
A Whitehall source said the UK needs to ensure diversity of supply “in 6G and 7G” and, more broadly, to protect “the crown jewels” of technology, research, and innovation.
MI6 is also understood to have told ministers that China was significantly under-reporting the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in January and February, echoing similar briefings given by the CIA to the White House.
Intelligence agencies have been urging greater emphasis on Chinese activity for months, and the announcement of Ken McCallum as the new director-general of MI5 at the end of last month was accompanied by a promise that the organization would focus more clearly on Beijing.
Late last month, Michael Gove, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, accused China of playing down the initial threat posed by COVID-19. “It was also the case that some of the reporting from China was not clear about the scale, nature, the infectiousness of this,” he said.
Other ministers who are known to be China-sceptics include Priti Patel, the home secretary, Ben Wallace, the defense secretary, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the house.
Concern about China, however, remains tempered by the UK’s deep trade relationship with Bejing, a point reinforced when Gove was forced to soften his criticism earlier this month after the arrival of badly-needed Chinese ventilators in the UK.
“Today 300 new ventilators arrived from China. I would like to thank the Chinese government for their support and securing that capacity,” the senior minister said.
Under David Cameron and George Osborne, the government pursued a policy of actively courting Chinese investment in areas such as nuclear power and telecoms. When Theresa May took over as prime minister, she ordered a review of the China General Nuclear Power Group’s investment in the new Hinckley Point nuclear plant, but it was allowed to proceed.
Charles Parton, a former China diplomat, and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute said that “a rethink of UK-China relations has been needed for a long time” because Beijing sees itself as in the long-term competition with the west.
But the foreign policy specialist also argued that the agencies’ job was “not to make policy but provide information, and added: “When they have strayed in the past, the results have not always been edifying”. Despite their concern about high-tech, it was not clear that spy agencies were technological experts, Parton said.
The future relationship with China is one of many issues due to being tackled by the integrated review of foreign policy and defense announced in February. It had been due to report in the autumn but is widely expected to be delayed given the current crisis.
A group of Conservative backbenchers, many of whom were prominent Brexiters, have begun to form a bloc of China-sceptics. Thirty-eight of the party’s MPs voted against allowing Huawei into supplying 5G technology last month, cutting the government’s majority in a Commons vote to 24.
Fifteen Tory MPs, led by Bob Seely, and including former ministers Iain Duncan Smith and David Davis, wrote to Johnson over the weekend asking that the UK “rethink our wider relationship with China” after the pandemic has eased. “We ... have failed to take a strategic view of Britain’s long-term economic, technical and security needs,” they said.