An overconfident and assertive China under President Xi Jinping and Communist Party rule risks making miscalculations on the international stage, including underestimating the resolve of the United States, Britain’s spy chief said on Tuesday.
In his first major public speech as chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) known as MI6, Richard Moore said China and Russia were racing to master technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
The world’s spy masters, from Langley to Moscow, are grappling with the transformation of China into a superpower challenging the post-Cold War dominance of the United States militarily, economically and increasingly in espionage.
“Adapting to a world affected by the rise of China is the single greatest priority for MI6,” Moore, 58, said in a speech in London.
Listing areas where Beijing has become more assertive, he singled out China’s desire to “resolve the Taiwan issue, by force if necessary” as “a serious challenge to global stability and peace”. China considers the democratically-ruled island to be part of its territory.
China had stripped Hong Kong citizens of rights, carried out abuses in its western Xinjiang province and was trying “to distort public discourse and political decision making across the globe”, Moore said.
“Beijing believes its own propaganda about Western frailties and underestimates Washington’s resolve,” he said. “The risk of Chinese miscalculation through over-confidence is real.”
China has repeatedly hit back at Western criticism of its actions, saying that the path set by its Communist Party has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It denies abuses in Xinjiang, says former British colony Hong Kong faces a security threat from secessionists, and accuses the United States of creating tension over Taiwan.
China in 1979 had an economy that was smaller than Italy’s, but after opening to foreign investment and introducing market reforms it has become the world’s second-largest economy, a rapid rise with few parallels in history.
Moore, who joined MI6 in the 1980s and worked under diplomatic cover in Vietnam, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran, said technological progress over the next decade could outstrip progress over the past century.
“Our adversaries are pouring money and ambition into mastering artificial intelligence, quantum computing and synthetic biology, because they know that mastering these technologies will give them leverage,” Moore said.
Moore also lamented the dire state of relations between Britain and Russia, saying his first memories were as a child growing up in Moscow in the 1960s, as his father had been posted to the Soviet Union.
“I have a deep respect for Russia’s history and culture and people,” Moore said.
“The current difficult relationship with Russia is not the one the UK wants. But we will do whatever it takes to keep our country safe and to deter and defend against the full spectrum of threats Moscow poses.”