Pressure, Isolate and Punish

Tom Stevenson

Last month, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee finally published a report on China on which it had been working, on and off, for almost four years. The main finding, reported approvingly across British media, was that China represents a threat to the UK because of Beijing’s ‘global ambition to become a technological and economic superpower’.

The report noted that China’s intelligence agencies target the UK (of course they do, just as China is among the targets of the UK’s intelligence agencies). Trying to exert influence on other states is legitimate, the ISC said, but ‘China oversteps the boundary’ by using espionage in search of ‘technological supremacy’. Never mind that it’s a line crossed by every state with the means: the British government considers it a point of pride that the National Cyber Force uses ‘offensive cyber’ against ‘the UK’s adversaries, including both state threats and non-state actors’.

The ISC report included a section on the risk of China trying to interfere with elections in the UK, though regrettably the evidence was redacted. The report also said China had, fiendishly, taken advantage of ‘the policy of successive British governments to boost economic ties between the UK and China’.

According to the ISC, British universities ‘provide a rich feeding ground for China to achieve political influence’. The report even went as far as saying that China has managed to ‘penetrate or buy Academia’ in the UK by such devious means as sending tens of thousands of fee-paying students to British universities. A political scientist at SOAS told the committee he had been offered a bribe by the Chinese Embassy. Nottingham University is also said to have received funding from a Confucius Institute.

In the US, talk of the threat from China is ubiquitous. Some of the points made by the ISC appear to be inspired by American national security policy. China’s ‘whole-of-government’ approach, for example, was also described by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence in its annual threat assessment, published in February. The ISC’s descriptions of Chinese influence operations, and of pressure on academics and think tanks, were also remarkably similar to the American threat assessment.

Last month, the government published its ‘refreshed’ Defence Command Paper, which said that China represents an ‘epoch-defining’ challenge because it ‘seeks to rewrite the international order that has provided stability and prosperity for generations’. Harlan Ullman, a senior adviser for the Atlantic Council, noted in the Financial Times that the Defence Command Paper ‘relies heavily on repeating concepts from the US National Defense Strategy’.

British policy towards China has tended to shift between salivating over business opportunities for British companies and anxiety about national security. Not all of this can be explained by the centralisation of power in the hands of Xi Jinping, who as recently as 2015 was taking carriage rides on the Mall. The UK has since come into closer alignment with US policy: British diplomats have sought to increase military ties with Japan, officials have begun to talk more about the defence of Taiwan, and the AUKUS deal will see the UK making direct contributions to maintaining the United States’ nuclear submarine advantage over China.

The UK is not alone in re-examining its relations with China; Germany, too, recently conducted a major assessment. But beyond the rhetoric about a ‘global values struggle’, the ISC was explicit that China is a threat in part because of Britain’s close relationship with the US. In mid-July, shortly before stepping down as the US undersecretary of defence for policy, Colin Kahl, was visiting London. At an event at Chatham House he was asked about the prospect of military confrontation with China. ‘The UK military operates with us everywhere,’ he said. ‘It’s very difficult for us to imagine conducting military operations at scale anywhere without asking the Brits to be along with us.’

Xi accuses the US and its allies of trying to ‘suppress, contain and encircle’ China. On the presidential campaign trail, Joe Biden described US strategy towards China in even stronger terms: to ‘pressure, isolate and punish’. In practice, this means the US strengthening its alliances with China’s immediate neighbours, while conducting a low-level trade war and trying to embargo advanced microelectronics.

Here, too, the UK follows. In May 2022, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said that when it comes to China the US must ‘compete with confidence’, ‘co-operate wherever we can’ and ‘contest where we must’. The Labour Party recently published a document called Britain Reconnected: A Foreign Policy for Security and Prosperity at Home. Under Labour, it said, British policy towards China would be to ‘compete, challenge and, where we can, co-operate’.


  • 20 August 2023 at 6:38pm
    Christopher Wright says:
    I'm not clear what argument is being made here: should we welcome China's intrusion into our public life, or should we stop apologising for it and get real about the threat to democracy from a technofascist superpower.

    • 23 August 2023 at 10:37pm
      Randall Cooper says: @ Christopher Wright
      It's sad to see how often the word, fascist (or derivatives thereof) is used by people who live in the UK, which actually fought a war against the actual fascist governments of Germany and Italy (where the term was created). China is NOT a fascist country. It is not a 'democracy' in the sense that term is used (wrongly) to describe the political systems of the West. But it is a 'democracy' in the sense that it uses that term (also wrongly). Countries of a certain size cannot achieve true democracies, even if they wanted to (and they don't). Rather, we're all just trying to pretend that the 'people' living in a country have a 'real voice' in deciding who should lead and how they should lead. If that's democracy in 2023, then China is a democracy, as is the UK and the US. That is, all have created the pretense that their people have voices.
      Note, too that in terms of the support of the people for a leader, neither the PM of the UK nor the President of the US have anything even close to the support of the people that Xi enjoys.

  • 21 August 2023 at 11:20am
    Clive says:
    Given the way the last hundred of so years have gone, the UK should be viewing this as a historic opportunity to dislodge itself from its vassalage to the current bellicose hegemon. Can’t stop laughing at the fact that the country that has toppled democratic but not profitable regimes all over the world is purporting to tell us that the real threat comes from the famous peaceful Chinese.

  • 21 August 2023 at 1:16pm
    Patrick Cotter says:
    By technofascist superpower, surely you mean the United States of America?

    • 23 August 2023 at 9:05pm
      shewie says: @ Patrick Cotter
      Nice one Patrick!