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Even in the face of Russian aggression, a British official highlights the danger posed by China

PoliticsEven in the face of Russian aggression, a British official highlights the danger posed by China

China’s expanding use of technology to control dissent and its growing ability to attack satellite systems, control digital currencies, and track individuals pose far greater challenges for the West than Russia’s aggressive behaviour, a senior British intelligence official will warn in a speech on Tuesday.

Jeremy Fleming, the head of the British electronic intelligence-gathering and cyber agency GCHQ, famous for its role in breaking the Enigma codes during World War II, expressed scepticism in a Monday interview ahead of his address regarding the extent to which China would support Russia’s aggression.

“I do not believe that this is a’relationship without boundaries,'” he added, repeating the phrase that Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China used when they met at the Olympics in Beijing earlier this year, just before the invasion of Ukraine. In view of Russia’s poor performance on the battlefield and its ruthlessness, he said that China “must assess the pros and cons of maintaining a strong alliance with Russia.”

Mr. Fleming’s agency — formally known as Government Communications Headquarters, the Canadian equivalent of the National Security Agency in the United States — plays an increasingly central role in tracking Russian communications and preparing for the day when China’s advances in quantum computing may be able to defeat the encryption used to secure government and corporate communications.

Mr. Fleming, a 30-year veteran of the British intelligence agencies, seldom addresses the public. In recent months, though, a number of Britain’s intelligence chiefs have adopted a carefully designed public role in discussing potential future security dangers.

Mr. Fleming went even farther, explaining the capabilities and laws governing Britain’s employment of offensive cyber capabilities, which it purportedly utilised in Syria against terror organisations and apparently against Russian troops in Ukraine, a topic Mr. Fleming declined to address.

In the interview, though, he referred to Russia as “a disruptor” whose current acts were “unpredictable.” Nonetheless, he stated that the performance of Russia’s military had revealed serious flaws, and excerpts from his forthcoming speech describe Mr. Putin’s decision-making as “flawed,” its forces as “exhausted,” and its reliance on 300,000 “inexperienced conscripts” as evidence of Mr. Putin’s “desperate situation.”

Until recent years, the majority of European countries refrained from making public criticisms of Beijing and its objectives, since trade with China became essential for development, particularly in Germany. Britain even enabled Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant that the United States believes might represent a security concern, to provide some 5G equipment to Britain’s communications network — under certain tight restrictions — until sanctions imposed by the United States rendered this impossible.

Mr. Fleming’s concerns about the methods underpinning China’s investment in new technology and its desire to develop “client economies and governments” are reminiscent of the remarks delivered by his American colleagues over the last five or more years. However, he spoke just before to the commencement of a Communist Party meeting in Beijing on Sunday, when Xi Jinping is anticipated to be nominated for a third five-year term as the nation’s chief executive.

Mr. Fleming said that in the case of China, this might be “the sliding-doors moment in history,” in which the United States and its allies may soon realise they are too far behind in a number of important technologies to retain a military or technical advantage over Beijing.

China’s plan to establish central bank digital currency that could be used to trace transactions was characterised as a change that might “allow China to partly escape the international sanctions presently imposed on Putin’s dictatorship in Russia.” He said that this was one example of how China was “learning the lessons” from the Ukraine conflict, presumably to use them if it chose to act against Taiwan and provoked more attempts by the United States and its allies to economically isolate China.

Mr. Fleming also detailed China’s efforts to develop “a formidable antisatellite capability and a strategy of denying other countries access to space in the event of a war.” In an effort to suppress opposition, including the speech of Chinese residents living overseas, he also accused China of attempting to change international technological standards to facilitate the surveillance of people.

In the case of Huawei, however, the United States and its European allies have yet to provide really competitive alternatives to a significant portion of the company’s networking equipment, according to officials from several nations. “We must be prepared to provide options,” added Mr. Fleming. In the years after the anti-Huawei movement gathered momentum, he said, “No, we do not.”

The Biden administration imposed extensive new restrictions on the transfer of semiconductor technology to China last week in an effort to restrict Beijing’s access to vital technologies required for supercomputers, sophisticated weaponry, and artificial intelligence applications.

It was an indication of how quickly the world’s two greatest economies had been embroiled in a battle for technical superiority, with the United States attempting to create a monopoly on sophisticated computer and semiconductor technologies, which China considers as crucial to its own objectives.

However, Mr. Fleming recognised that over the next several months, he and other American officials would be preoccupied with the issue of whether Russia will attempt to deploy a tactical nuclear bomb in Ukraine to compensate for its combat failures.

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