ArticlesCybersecurityGlobal Affairs

China’s Spy Game: Is the West Losing?

Posted By June 12, 2024 No Comments

China spy network (DALL-E)

For years, Western spy agencies have emphasized the necessity to pivot their focus towards China. Recently, the head of the UK’s GCHQ intelligence agency labeled this pivot as an “epoch-defining challenge.” This statement comes amidst a series of arrests across the West, involving individuals accused of spying and hacking for China. Notably, the UK Foreign Office recently summoned China’s ambassador following accusations against three individuals allegedly aiding Hong Kong’s intelligence services. These incidents highlight a typically covert contest for power and influence between the West and China now surfacing publicly.

The US and its allies, including Canada, are determined to counter this threat, but senior officials express concern that the West has not adequately addressed the challenge from China. Consequently, Western nations have fallen behind in intelligence efforts, increasing their vulnerability to Beijing’s espionage activities and heightening the risk of a potentially catastrophic miscalculation.

Western officials are particularly troubled by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambition for Beijing to establish a new international order. Sir Richard Moore, the chief of MI6, stated in a rare interview for a BBC series on China and the West, “Ultimately it aspires to displace the United States as the foremost power.” Despite years of warnings, Western intelligence services have struggled until recently to concentrate on Chinese activities.

Nigel Inkster, former deputy head of MI6, noted that China’s rise as a major global power occurred during a period of other significant preoccupations. As Beijing gained prominence in the 2000s, Western policymakers and security officials were largely focused on the war on terror and military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The recent unprecedented gathering of intelligence officials in Silicon Valley underscores the growing urgency to address China’s espionage activities, particularly its efforts to steal technology through cyber-espionage and insider recruitment. A Western intelligence official estimated that China employs around 600,000 people in intelligence and security, more than any other state in the world. Western security services, on the other hand, are overwhelmed and unable to investigate every case. MI5 in the UK reported that over 20,000 individuals have been approached by Chinese spies on professional networking sites like LinkedIn to cultivate relationships.

Ken McCallum, head of MI5, described these as “epic” campaigns with serious national security and economic implications. While China’s vast intelligence apparatus is primarily focused on domestic surveillance, it also uses its resources to limit criticism abroad.

Recent reports have indicated Chinese spies targeting Western politics, with arrests in the UK, Belgium, and Germany, and an ongoing inquiry in Canada. Additionally, there have been reports of Chinese “overseas police stations” in Europe and the US. In targeting Chinese dissidents in the West, Beijing’s intelligence officers often act remotely, hiring private investigators or making threatening phone calls.

Historically, China targeted UK government systems as early as the 2000s, primarily focusing on gathering information on overseas dissidents like Tibetan and Uighur groups. Australia has been proactive in addressing political interference, with its security agency detecting activity starting around 2016. In 2018, Australia enacted new laws to counter such interference.

In January 2022, MI5 in the UK issued an interference alert alleging that UK-based solicitor Christine Lee had been donating to various British political parties to advance Beijing’s agenda. While Lee is pursuing a legal case against MI5, it was only in 2023 that the UK passed a new National Security Act to address interference by foreign states.

Canada, too, has been vigilant. Recently, reports have surfaced about potential Chinese interference in Canadian politics and espionage activities targeting Canadian businesses and research institutions. Canada’s intelligence agency, CSIS, has been working closely with international partners to counter these threats. The public inquiry into foreign interference in Canada underscores the seriousness with which these threats are being addressed.

The West is not passive in this espionage struggle, as it continues to spy on China. However, collecting intelligence on China presents unique challenges due to pervasive surveillance within the country, which makes traditional human intelligence methods near-impossible. A decade ago, China dismantled a significant network of CIA agents. Technologically, China is also a hard target for agencies like GCHQ and the NSA, as it uses its own technology.

The knowledge gap regarding Chinese intentions could lead to dangerous misunderstandings. During the Cold War, the West’s failure to grasp Moscow’s insecurities brought the world close to catastrophic conflict. Similar risks exist today, particularly concerning China’s ambition to regain control over Taiwan and escalating tensions in the South China Sea.

Sir Richard Moore emphasized the importance of MI6 in providing intelligence to navigate potential risks. “Misunderstandings are always dangerous – it is better when channels of communication are open and when you have insights into the intentions of those with whom you are competing,” he noted. Maintaining open communication channels is crucial. MI6 does engage with Chinese counterparts over terrorist threats, and recent resumption of military contacts between the US and China has been welcomed.

Despite reduced tensions due to increased diplomatic contact, the long-term trajectory of China-West relations continues to raise alarms. Revelations about espionage exacerbate public mistrust on both sides, limiting flexibility during crises. Understanding and coexisting with each other will be vital to prevent relations from spiraling into deadly conflict.