Confusion and obfuscation prevails in Whitehall, as No10 and the Foreign Office fail to reckon with the severity of the threat from Beijing.
The latest report of the intelligence and security committee (ISC) on China makes it clear that in the face of a threat from Beijing, the Government is guilty of too often allowing economic concerns to trump security concerns. Although blocked for some months by a Government wary of its findings, it is nonetheless as damning a report on British foreign policy failure as I can remember.
As one of seven parliamentarians who have been sanctioned, we have been calling for a clearer and tougher policy on China that starts with the acceptance that Beijing poses a systemic threat. It is here that the report again shows up a key failure: that Whitehall has been dragging its feet. The ISC points out that there is still no specific criminal offence for economic espionage, which would hugely assist in blocking unwarranted and deliberate interference in our key technological areas.
The report is also justifiably critical of the Government’s reluctance to have a strategy for intervening to protect our critical and emerging technologies. Even though we now have the power to intervene in takeovers on national security grounds, I recall how protracted the decision making has been – remember the back and forth over Wafer Fab? The ISC contrasts that with the speed with which the US has developed a national strategy “aimed at protecting its technological dominance”.
The Government’s poor handling of Beijing’s threat can be seen across a range of sectors. From academia’s worrying dependence on Chinese student money, to industry, where the report cites “China’s determination to become a permanent and significant player” in the UK’s civil nuclear industry. This for too long has been encouraged by Whitehall.
And all of it is in the face of a charge sheet of Chinese aggression. Beijing is militarising the South China seas, despite widespread dismissal of its claimed rights. It has trashed the Sino-British agreement on Hong Kong, now persecuting peaceful believers in democracy. It threatens to invade Taiwan, while genocide is being committed against the Uyghur people.
China now dominates the market in rare earth minerals. These make the tiny magnets that power our phones, wind turbines and electric vehicles – they are the oil of the 21st Century. China also owns a large share of the mines and production. Imagine if it suddenly decided not to provide the free world with the refined rare earth materials? It would constitute a major, debilitating systemic threat.
In a recent interview, when asked whether China posed a threat, the Foreign Secretary dodged the question with an incontinent set of alternative questions. “Are they competition?” he asked. “Are they a threat? Are they a challenge? Are they an opportunity?” Are they a this or are they a that? His confusion illustrates that of the wider Government. Their latest assessment is that China is an “epoch defining challenge” which we will apparently meet with robust pragmatism. Sir Humphrey would be proud.
It should now be clear to any observer that the Government does not have any genuine strategy on China. How quickly we forget. If the 1930’s taught us anything, it is that we must recognise external threats and act accordingly, or risk sending the wrong signals to dictatorships like China with deadly consequences.
The West was caught out by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. We must not be again. The Government should not dismiss this report, but read it and act before it is too late.