Amid the restructuring of the global order that has been accelerated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the evolving position of China had been lost in the fog of war.
The heads of Britain’s security service MI5 and the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation sought to pierce the murk with a rare joint press conference warning of the “immense threat” from China.
The optics of a shared public platform was to underline the magnitude of the importance of the message. So, what is the real threat from China and how should we interpret it?
MI5 Director General Ken McCallum said in the briefing that they are now dealing with seven times the number of investigations involving China compared to 2018.
“The most game-changing challenge we face comes from the Chinese Communist Party. It’s covertly applying pressure across the globe,” he said.
Similarly, the warnings issued about the theft of intellectual property and influence in key Western elections are hot-button issues. But the real question of interest is, why are we being asked to worry now?
With all of these threats, we could substitute Russia for China. Some of the magnitude and intensities would change but the activities are all drawn from broadly the same playbook.
The significant thing that McCallum and FBI Director Christopher Wray were saying is, do not repeat the same mistakes with China that were made with Russia.
The superficial seduction of easy money – in terms of credit and inward investment – and cheap goods are challenges that might not be tackled robustly because on their own they do not warrant a serious response.
But when they are considered as part of a bigger picture they can amount to a serious threat to our security, our politics, and our economic strength.
European countries, such as Germany, were sucked into deep relationships with Russia over gas and are now struggling to extract themselves. China can offer similar enticements, but they should be weighed up carefully.
For Beijing, the invasion of Ukraine has provided substantial intelligence about how the West would respond militarily, economically, and politically to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
They know that the Western response will entail a large package of sanctions, cyber operations against key infrastructure and assets, and direct military support, aligned with efforts to ostracise any invaders internationally.
Chinese mitigation can now be built into those military plans.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delayed the invasion of Ukraine until after the Winter Olympics in February 2022 as part of a presumed acquiescence to Chinese President Xi Jinping. In doing that, Moscow suddenly became more dependent on Beijing.
As the war has dragged on, the European Union has volunteered to have the millstone of a Marshall Plan for Ukraine placed around its neck. While Russia is weakened, China may regain its economic power in Ukraine, with the potential to exploit the country’s reconstruction.
The types of threats presented to the US and the United Kingdom from China are not necessarily novel, but they have become more serious.
There is a territorial threat to contested Taiwan – strategically important because of the West’s commitment to the democratic island, and its place as the most important source of computer chips in the world.
There is a potential military threat to Japan and South Korea from a steady build-up of naval forces and persistent military exercises in their waters. Both nations are important Western allies sitting under their security umbrella.
This vulnerability prompted the then-Japanese prime minister, the late Shinzo Abe, to move the country away from its demilitarised status and towards a form of rearmament.
Similarly, Australia has become increasingly concerned about Chinese military activities in its nearby waters and has sought closer cooperation with its “five eyes” intelligence partners, comprising the US, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, to combat the threats it faces.
Beijing has sought to advance its soft power influence in Africa and the Pacific through the use of its considerable sovereign wealth and its ability to suppress the price of consumer goods. Creating an additional supply of products that will increase personal debt.
Meanwhile in Western security circles, part of the debate has involved electronics giant Huawei. Fears persist that allowing a Chinese manufacturer into Western networks will hand Beijing’s security agencies a backdoor into sensitive communications.
So far, so normal, but the added dimension is that China is the runaway leader in the global race to develop and deploy artificial intelligence to make sense of large datasets.
The risk is that the Chinese military and security agencies will understand our populations and our vulnerabilities better than we do.
Additionally, China has sought to advance its influence by projecting itself into the intellectual space, funding research activities and institutes in the West, and sending very large numbers of students to our universities.
Beijing-funded research institutes, for instance, can be used as a vehicle for Chinese influencing operations, restricting or censoring topics or areas of work.
This has formed a contested part of academic discussion for several years and has become a rather toxic debate. MI5’s public intervention on this might actually be helpful to those who have seen themselves as whistleblowers.
The size of the Chinese postgraduate student market has made Western universities peculiarly dependent upon a crucial income stream. But it has also had the effect of providing a level of exposure and experience to Chinese students of how the West works.
Again, this is likely to form the future leadership cadres in politics and industry.
In comparison, the vast majority of British and American citizens have neither been to China nor speak any of the Chinese dialects.
This poses a current and future challenge in understanding how to deal with Beijing, or how to best tackle any form of conflict with the world’s second-largest economy.
In conclusion, the real winners of the invasion of Ukraine are not likely to be Russian, even if it is their flag that is raised in the Donbas and elsewhere.
It will be the Chinese government that has stood back and seen its rivals spending considerable economic and military capital on a small and nasty war in Ukraine, while it has accelerated its own influencing operations in the West.
This is what has spooked the intelligence heads, and that is why they are calling for the world to pay attention.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.