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MI5 will help firms fend off Chinese and Russian spies – by Chris Smyth – for The Times – 13.03.23

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor | San Diego

MI5 is to offer businesses direct help in dealing with Chinese and Russian spying as Rishi Sunak promises to “fortify our national defences”.

The prime minister will set out his plan to deal with the “epoch-defining challenge” of China as part of his updated diplomatic and defence strategy. Last night he rebuked those in his party who insist on defining China as a threat to Britain, saying it was not “smart or sophisticated foreign policy”.

He will risk another spat with his back benches as he refuses to promise permanently higher defence spending. He is to give the military only half of what it asked for in this week’s budget.

As part of the updated integrated strategy, Sunak will announce the creation of a “national protective security authority” within MI5 to offer advice to businesses, universities and other organisations targeted by industrial espionage. Concerns have included efforts by state-sponsored Chinese and Russian hackers to target coronavirus vaccines, including one at Oxford University, during the pandemic.

In offering support directly to the public, the new authority will also mark the latest phase in the emergence of MI5 and other intelligence agencies from the shadows. Officials liken the national protective security agency to the National Cyber Security Centre, set up by GCHQ in 2016 to offer public advice on hacking threats.

Companies and other bodies will be able to ask the agency for advice on dealing with Chinese companies, doing business in China or buying equipment from suppliers there. It is expected that the authority will set out guidelines on dealing with the likes of Huawei and Hikvision as well as offering advice on takeovers in sensitive industries, where Sunak has been keen to intervene.

Language training in Mandarin for diplomats will also be expanded through a doubling in funding for the government’s China capabilities programme. The BBC World Service will be handed £20 million to save 47 language services threatened with closure because of budget cuts. Officials said it would help to counter Chinese and Russian disinformation in vulnerable countries.

Sunak is also promising an updated critical minerals strategy to deal with concerns that China is attempting to corner the global market in materials vital to manufacturing modern technology, such as lithium and cobalt.

An economic deterrence initiative to make it harder for oligarchs to evade sanctions is also promised.

“As the world becomes more volatile and competition between states becomes more intense, the UK must be ready to stand our ground,” the prime minister said last night. “We will fortify our national defences, from economic security to technology supply chains and intelligence expertise, to ensure we are never again vulnerable to the actions of a hostile power.”

He will argue that Britain can stand up to China on issues like human rights and economic espionage while finding “common ground” on such issues as climate change and the world economy.

The most scrutinised part of the strategy will be his attempt to set out a “thoughtful and detailed approach to China”, which he insisted kept Britain aligned with the US and other allies. Existing policy defines China as both a “systemic challenge” and an “increasingly important global partner” but many Tory MPs want it formally designated as a threat, something promised by Liz Truss.

In the summer leadership contest Sunak talked tough on China, calling it “the biggest long-term threat to Britain” and promising to clamp down on its “nefarious activity”. But en route to the US last night he insisted that this was the wrong approach. “I don’t think it’s smart or sophisticated foreign policy to reduce our relationship with China, which after all is a country with one and a half billion people, second biggest economy, and member of the UN security council, to just two words [threat or challenge]”, he said. “It is necessary and right to engage with them in order to try and make a difference on things that we care about.”

He insisted that this did not mean deferring to Beijing, saying: “China represents a country that has very different values to ours. I think it presents an epoch-defining challenge to us and to the global order. It’s a regime that is increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad and has a desire to reshape the world order.”

He urged people to judge him by his actions in blocking a Chinese takeover of Britain’s biggest microchip maker, excluding its state nuclear company from future power plants or banning Chinese-made CCTV cameras from sensitive sites.

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There will be guidelines on dealing with companies such as Hikvision


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