The coronavirus pandemic has put the rise of China “front and centre” in people’s minds, one of Britain’s most senior spymasters has said, in an acknowledgment that the crisis has prompted a re-evaluation of Britain’s relations with Beijing.
Jeremy Fleming, director of the UK signals intelligence agency GCHQ, explained that the virus — which originated in China’s Wuhan Province — has raised public awareness of the difficulties in dealing with the Asian superpower. Beijing has repeatedly been accused of suppressing crucial information about coronavirus when cases first began to emerge earlier this year.
“Of course, it is the case that China’s rise, if it wasn’t front and centre for everyone before this pandemic, it certainly is front and centre now,” Mr Fleming told an online audience at the Cheltenham Science Festival. “All of us as nations are working [out] how we work with China, where it is we disagree with China, how we disagree with China, and what it means for our economies and our relationships going forward.”
Mr Fleming’s comments — recorded two weeks ago and only made public by the intelligence agency on Thursday — are being aired at a tense moment in the UK-China relationship, with the two countries sparring over Beijing’s plans to impose national security laws in Hong Kong.
Britain responded to news of the security crackdown by offering British National (Overseas) residents in Hong Kong a path to future UK citizenship. China’s foreign ministry retaliated this week by warning Britain to “abandon” its “cold war mentality” and said any attempts to interfere in the affairs of its former colony would “definitely backfire”.
The GCHQ director said Britain’s current relationship with Beijing was complex, given the country’s dependence on Chinese infrastructure investment at a time of increasing diplomatic disagreement.
“We see China as an intelligence adversary, we see them as an economic partner, we work with them in some areas, we compete with them in others, and in still others, we call out their behaviours when we don’t think they align with what we expect to see or with our values,” he said.
The UK government confirmed last month that it was reviewing its decision to allow Huawei a role in delivering national 5G networks, as a result of new US sanctions that will affect the Chinese telecoms group’s supply chain.
A government review of security, defence and foreign policy has been delayed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but a strand of the inquiry looking at the UK’s future relationship with Beijing has been fast-tracked. This week Boris Johnson chaired a meeting of the National Security Council focused exclusively on China.
Richard Dearlove, former head of the Secret Intelligence Service MI6, suggested this week that coronavirus was a man-made virus that could have escaped by accident from a lab in Wuhan.
“I do not think that this started as an accident,” Sir Richard told a Telegraph podcast. “I think it will make every country in the world rethink how it treats its relationship with China.”
Whitehall officials say the idea that the virus was man-made is “not a credible line of inquiry”.