Containment or coalition?
In an unprecedented move, the heads of the American Federal Bureau of Investigation and the British Security Service, better known as MI5, issued a joint warning last month about Beijing’s long-term ambition to undermine Western democracies.
Their joint appearance was designed to show unified determination to uphold the current US-led world order.
But they come at a time of re-thinking, particularly within the developing world, where many governments are resisting pressure to choose between the democratic Euro-Atlantic and autocratic Sino-Russian spheres of influence.
This constituency, often referred to as the Global South, is becoming increasingly influential.
Many of its governments do not share the West’s moral outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and there is a spreading sense that the international system, as it stands now, is no longer working to their benefit.
Added to this, if we set the China challenge alongside violence from Russia, Islamic terror, Iran and others, handling Beijing comes across as more a conundrum than a threat. Its influence peddling is pragmatic, flexible, understandable and, for the most part, non-violent.
Is China, therefore, a rising power that needs to be contained, or could it become the missing pillar in much-needed reform of an outdated international system?
Clues may lie in the two intelligence chiefs’ statements.
Speaking to an audience of academics and business leaders, MI5’s Ken McCullum said that most of what is at risk ‘from Chinese Communist Party aggression is world-leading expertise, technology, research and commercial advantage.’
China’s attempts to steal and undermine this had sharply expanded MI5’s China-focus, such that it was now running seven times more operations than in 2018. Beijing’s ‘covert pressure across the globe’ amounted to ‘the most game-changing challenge we face,’ McCullum said.
The FBI and MI5 are domestic intelligence agencies tracking threats on home soil. Yet much of it, such as buying Chinese technology for critical infrastructure, is of the West’s own making.
Distracted by the War on Terror and cash-strapped from the 2008 financial crisis, Chinese engagement and investment was encouraged. Governments ignored intelligence reports reminding them that China was an authoritarian state, unlikely to change its ways.
That mistake has now been acknowledged, and the intelligence community is determined to ensure that China stays in the spotlight, hence this joint MI5-FBI warning which was delivered at two levels.
First, there was headline-making language, matching familiar rhetoric of US-China rivalry designed to catch the ears of the media and politicians. FBI director Christopher Wray described Beijing’s actions as a ‘complex, enduring and pervasive danger’.
Second, there was the more pedestrian detail, with the focus on industrial espionage and cyber. Wray said China was ‘set on stealing your technology, whatever it is that makes your industry tick, and using it to undercut your business and dominate your market’.
This scenario is a world away from car bombs, assassinations or, in Russia’s case, the threat of nuclear war.
MI5’s McCullum described China as being at the opposite end of the spectrum to Britain’s most immediate threat of the ‘lone terrorists – Islamist extremist and right-wing extremist – radicalised online, acting at pace, in unpredictable ways’.
With China, they were facing ‘a coordinated campaign on a grand scale. Rather than lightning pace, a strategic contest across decades’. It is here that opportunity lies because decades give time to get it right.
There is no dispute that China is a powerful international force, particularly among the Global South constituency. It is also, probably, the only voice to which Russia will listen, and the Kremlin believes that, with China alongside, its hard-hitting rebellion against the world order can prevail.
Beijing is not so certain. The impact of a slowing economy and ‘zero-Covid’ lockdown policy has yet to unfold. It knows that its global reach remains far from rivalling that of the US and, pragmatically, it would be wiser to work within the American-led system in the coming decades than try to overturn it.
All three powers have a shared interest in containing Islamic and nationalist terror, which McCullum identified as his most pressing danger.
The intelligence services are speaking up now because, rightly, they do not want the spotlight on China’s authoritarian reality to dim as it did a decade or so ago.
But industrial espionage and technology theft are small fry compared to invading sovereign nations and threatening nuclear war. If parameters can be agreed, China could prove to be an invaluable ally in both containing Russian violence and winning around the Global South.
History never exactly repeats itself, but a similar view was held by the US during the Cold War in the late 1960s, leading to President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.