It was very interesting to listen to the interview given by the Head of the Secret Intelligence Service MI6, Richard Moore this morning on BBC Radio 4 and in particular the very clear warning of what he termed as being China’s ‘debt traps’ and ‘data traps’ and of how these threatened to erode [national] sovereignty.
Ahead of delivering what will have been his first formal public speech since becoming ‘chief’ a year ago, Mr. Moore warned that China had the capability to “harvest data from around the world” and that Beijing influence comes through use of its economic policies. Explaining the “data trap”, he said: “If you allow another country to gain access to really critical data about your society, over time that will erode your sovereignty, you no longer have control over that data – “That’s something which, I think, in the UK we are very alive to and we’ve taken measures to defend against.”
Mr. Moore described Russia as an “acute threat” to the UK and said Russian President Vladimir Putin has been clear that he does not recognise Ukraine’s right to be an independent state adding that “From time to time we get sort of crises around Ukraine as we worry about build-up of troops and what President Putin’s intentions might be. Therefore, it bears very careful watching and it bears very careful signalling to the Russians about, you know, the price that they would have to pay if they intervened, as they did in 2014 adding that there was not “an adversarial sort of agenda here – we are not trying to encircle Russia, we’re not trying to prevent it from pursuing its legitimate interest.”
Not surprisingly choosing words with great care as he talked in a very professional manner with Nick Robinson, Mr. Moore was asked why he accepted the invitation to be interviewed by the BBC now. His answer was effectively recognition that in a modern democracy the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service could not stand aloof of or ignore change. He went on to suggest that in the future he wanted to have closer links with UK technology industry partners not only to ensure that MI6 which along with MI5 comprise the UK’s Secret Intelligence Services, can stay ahead.
There may well be some who believe that, as has until relatively recently been custom and practice since MI5, MI6 and GCHQ were founded, that the UK’s primary security organisations should neither be seen or heard. To an extent I share that view but on the other hand I also believe that it is only right that once in a while they should also remind of the huge value that they provide to our national security and well-being whilst also reminding to public of what they do and what they are there for.
Not surprisingly the BBC interview led on to questioning in relation to Afghanistan and the manner and speed of the evacuation process for Kabul airport. Richard Moore’s answer was that the assessment of the speed at which the Taliban would seize control of Kabul as British and American troops withdrew from Afghanistan was “clearly wrong” but that it was “really overblown to describe it in terms of intelligence failure”. “None of us predicted the speed of the fall of Kabul” adding that “Frankly, if we had recruited every member of the Taliban Shura, you know, the leadership group of the Taliban, [if] we recruited every one of them as a secret agent, we still wouldn’t have predicted the fall of Kabul because the Taliban didn’t.”
However, he added that there is no “soft soaping” that the victory of the Taliban had been a “serious reverse” and he is concerned it will be a “morale boost for extremists around the world, and indeed for those sitting in the capitals in Beijing, Tehran, and Moscow”.
A world away it might well be but last week’s warning from Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton that “dark clouds” were forming and that the world should not repeat “the mistakes of the 1930s” when Western powers ignored the rapid militarisation of Japan and Germany. Ruling out any form of appeasement saying that it was up to Beijing to scale back its provocative behaviour in order to preserve peace, Mr. Dutton argued that China was expanding its military at a rapid rate and that it saw countries across the region including Australia as “tributary states” has been warmly welcomed by Taiwan which expressed “sincere gratitude” to both he and Australian PM Scott Morrison for their warnings against Beijing’s further ratchetting up of military pressure.
In what many will regard as being the most aggressive anti-China speech delivered in living memory by an Australian minister, Mr. Dutton told an audience at Australia’s National Press Club that “The lack of transparency in [China’s] rapid military expansion, coupled with a pattern of coercive behaviour, is fuelling concerns in many countries, across many oceans” adding that the cost of Australia joining the US in a potential future war to defend Taiwan should be weighed against the cost of inaction.
In what he termed as a litany of aggressive behaviour Mr Dutton outlined China’s aggressive behaviour, including establishing 20 “outposts” in the South China Sea, rejecting The Hague’s 2016 ruling against its claims in the same sea, sending more jets into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, using militia fishing boats to intrude into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and border strains with India and in the East China Sea with Japan.
He reminded that China now had the largest navy in the world made up of 355 ships and submarines, and would number 460 vessels by 2030, while its maritime militia routinely has 300 vessels operating in the Spratly Islands on any given day. He said China had amassed more than 2000 ground-launched ballistic missiles while its nuclear weapon stockpile was expected to grow to between 700 and 1000 warheads and that “every major city in Australia, including Hobart, is within range of China’s missile.,”
“Regrettably” Mr Dutton said “China is using its increasing power – in security, trade and economics, media and the internet – to compel compliance, at the cost of respect and that it was prudent for Australia to accelerate its acquisition of new military equipment given the possibility of conflict over Taiwan in the short term.”
CHW (London – 30th November 2021)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785