LONDON: China, which is increasingly flexing its muscles around the world, is one of the biggest threats to Britain and its allies, and a miscalculation” by Beijing could lead to war, the head of the UK’s foreign intelligence agency said on Tuesday.

MI6 chief Richard Moore said that China, Russia, Iran and international terrorism make up the big four security issues facing Britain’s spies in an unstable world where both countries and illicit organisations are racing to exploit fast-changing information technology.

In his first public speech since becoming head of the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, in October 2020, Moore said China is the intelligence agency’s single greatest priority as the country’s leadership increasingly backs bold and decisive action to further its interests.

Calling China an authoritarian state with different values than ours, he said Beijing conducts large-scale espionage operations against the UK and its allies, tries to distort public discourse and political decision-making and exports technology that enables a web of authoritarian control around the world.

Beijing’s growing military strength and the party’s desire to resolve the Taiwan issue, by force if necessary, also pose a serious challenge to global stability and peace,” Moore said.

The Chinese Communist Party increasingly favour decisive action justified on national security grounds. Beijing believes its own propaganda about Western frailties and under-estimates Washingtons resolve. The risk of Chinese miscalculation through overconfidence is real.

Moore said the UK also continues to face an acute threat from Russia. He said Moscow has sponsored killing attempts, such as the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in England in 2018, mounts cyberattacks and attempts to interfere in other countries democratic processes.

We and our allies and partners must stand up to and deter Russian activity which contravenes the international rules-based system, the MI6 chief said.

No country in Europe or beyond should be seduced into thinking that unbalanced concessions to Russia bring better behavior,” he said, noting Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its recent buildup of troops near the border with Ukraine.

His comments are the latest warnings from senior British officials aimed at deterring Moscow from further incursions in Ukraine.

Moore said Iran also poses a major threat, and uses the political and militant group Hezbollah a state within a state to fuel political turmoil in neighboring countries.

Turning to non-state threats, he said the fall of Afghanistan’s internationally backed government and the return to power of the Taliban were a morale boost to militants.

I won’t soft soap it: The threat we face will likely grow now we have left Afghanistan,” Moore said though he also said it would be overblown to call the surprise speed of the Taliban’s takeover a Western intelligence failure.

He argued that Britain’s spies must give up some of their deep-rooted secrecy and seek help from technology firms to win a cybersecurity arms race that is giving hostile countries and groups ever more capacity.

Moore, speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the disruptive potential of artificial intelligence and other rapidly developing technologies means the spy agency has to become more open to stay secret in a world of destabilising technological change.

Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2021

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