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We have been asleep at the wheel over the threat China poses to our security

(Alamy)

4 min read

It shouldn’t take the shooting down of spy balloons to wake us up to the increasing threats to United Kingdom security posed by Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dictatorship in Beijing.

As evidence has mounted of a concerted campaign of influence, infiltration, and intimidation by the CCP against western democracies, select committees in both Houses have warned of the increasing dangers. 

Whether those dangers are posed by Chinese-produced technology used for surveillance or espionage; tracking devices in ministers’ cars; CCP security cameras in government buildings; the widespread use by British police forces of Chinese-made drones; or partnerships between British universities with Chinese institutions; whether it is the danger of infiltration within the Palace of Westminster itself – highlighted by M15’s revelations last year about Christine Lee – or the risks of TikTok - we have been asleep at the wheel.

Given the threats we face we must urgently reprioritise security and defence spending

In a welcome move, the Prime Minister has now recalibrated his softly-softly business-first approach by stating that the government will do “whatever it takes” to keep Britain safe and that the armed forces have been put on alert to shoot down any high-tech Chinese balloons in our airspace. It is also welcome that Defence Secretary has ordered a review. 

But across government they need to sing from the hymn sheet. 

That Whitehall has now banned Chinese surveillance cameras from sensitive sites is good – if belated. But bad that the government is resisting an all-party Lords amendment to take more comprehensive action.

As the CCP continues to threaten our security, we need to up our game. 

And that includes the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) which needs to explain why it thought it was okay to invite to London the CCP governor of Xinjiang who oversees what the House of Commons declared to be genocide of Uyghur Muslims.

We clearly need to do far more to tackle the enemy within. It is extraordinary that 42 universities are, according to The Times, working with Chinese institutions directly involved in espionage, hacking, military research and nuclear development, as well as being complicit with atrocity crimes. 

What, for example, is the University of Surrey doing partnering with Beijing on artificial intelligence and facial recognition software used by the regime to identify Uyghurs and dissidents? 

It disturbs me that when, on national security grounds, our most important Five Eyes allies ban the Chinese regime’s involvement in telecommunications, surveillance cameras and nuclear power stations, the UK mostly follows the money, diminishing its resilience and increasing its dependency on China. 

Our trade deficit with China is now £40bn. We gave at least £150m to firms allegedly linked to human rights atrocities in Xinjiang for personal protective equipment (PPE) in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. This dependency on China in critical sectors is absurd. 

Recall how German dependence on Russia for energy compromised its ability to properly defend democracy and sovereignty. We must not make the same mistake.

And be careful about who your friends are. One of the first photo opportunities organised by the Taliban after the western coalition’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was in Beijing, where they were making deals with the CCP. 

Dictatorships stick together, and dictatorship attracts dictatorship: like attracts like. Unholy alliances – whether between Russia and Iran, or between China and the Taliban – pose a danger to us all. 

I had the privilege of taking part in the most recent House of Lords’ International Relations and Defence Select Committee Inquiry. The increasing global threat from the CCP was one of the themes our committee explored. 

We held 22 evidence sessions and heard from 39 witnesses. We argued that given the threats we face – most immediately because of Vladimir Putin’s appalling invasion of Ukraine, but longer-term from the increased tension over Taiwan and the CCP’s threats to us at home – we must urgently reprioritise security and defence spending, along with other liberal democracies.

Despite the challenging economic times, in a previous incarnation, Jeremy Hunt was right to say that we must “get real” about the need to invest in our armed forces and to recognise that the first duty of any government is to keep people safe. 

To do so, he said he supported an increase in defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP. Now, as Chancellor, and as he prepares his spring Budget, I hope he will deliver on this and take urgent steps to increase UK resilience and diminish dependency on the CCP. 

 

Lord Alton, crossbench peer. 

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Read the most recent article written by Lord Alton - Lords Diary: Lord Alton

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