British intelligence retools to meet the growing challenge of China


ASPEN, Colo. — Britain’s storied MI6 foreign intelligence service has retooled its operations with a major focus on the threat posed by China, the agency’s director said in rare public remarks Thursday.

“MI6 has never had any illusions about communist China,” Richard Moore, chief of what is called the Secret Intelligence Service, told the Aspen Security Conference being held here this week.

Unlike its CIA counterpart, MI6 is a dedicated human spying agency that does not engage in intelligence analysis, Mr. Moore said. The agency was made famous by novelist Ian Fleming’s James Bond movies and by former MI6 officer John le Carre’s espionage novels.

Mr. Moore, a former MI6 spy recruiter with extensive overseas experience, said there is a growing recognition in governments and Western publics about some of the threats posed by the Chinese to the U.S., Britain and their allies. That has meant a pronounced reorientation of the British service’s focus.

“What is different is that we are putting more effort into China, and we now devote more effort to China than any other single subject,” he said. The China intelligence target “just moved past counterterrorism in terms of our mission.”

MI6 is working to help policymakers deal with China from a position of strength while trying to get ahead of Chinese threats, he said, adding that the agency works closely with the CIA. The challenge for MI6 is the opaque communist system in China that is very difficult to penetrate.

U.S. intelligence officials have said Chinese counterspies rolled up scores of recruited U.S. agents in China beginning in 2010. The intelligence failure has limited the ability of U.S. intelligence to obtain secrets.

Even with that loss, however, Mr. Moore said understanding Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strategic intent is not difficult. 

“If you read ‘Made in China 2025,’ he lays out for you their ambitions around technology and their ambition to dominate key technologies,” he said. But “if you go beneath that strategy in terms of how they implement it, how they organize, what their tactical intent is and then what are the capabilities they are building up, that’s a black box.”

The Chinese leader has adopted what analysts say is a very entrenched narrative of what he perceives as Western weakness. Mr. Moore said he worries Mr. Xi underestimates U.S. resolve and power, increasing the danger the Chinese leader will miscalculate, especially by a move against Taiwan.

Mr. Moore said he does not believe that future conflict between the United States and China is inevitable, and differences between China and Taiwan should be settled peacefully.

Ukraine and Taiwan

Both Mr. Moore and CIA Director William Burns, who addressed the Aspen security gathering Wednesday, said China was closely watching Russia’s struggles in Ukraine for clues as to how a Taiwan military campaign might unfold.

Mr. Burns said he would not underestimate Mr. Xi’s determination to take Taiwan through military action in the next few years.

The Chinese leader is working to make sure the People’s Liberation Army has the capabilities for a successful invasion of the democratic island, which is about 100 miles off the Chinese coast.

“The Chinese leadership is trying to study the lessons of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and what it tells them,” he said. A major lesson for Beijing from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is that decisive victories cannot be achieved with “underwhelming force.”

The Russian military sent about 190,000 troops into Ukraine in February and expected the government in Kyiv to fall within a week. Instead, Ukrainian military forces fought back fiercely.

China’s political and military leaders think a successful attack against Taiwan will require overwhelming military power, the CIA chief said. In addition to using military force, the Chinese will need to attack Taiwan “in the information space” and prepare for economic and other sanctions from the outside world, Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Xi and other Chinese leaders are “unsettled” by the beating the Russian military has taken in Ukraine, he said, and Beijing is concerned that the invasion has driven European nations closer to the U.S.
Mr. Moore said it is too early to tell what lessons the Chinese leadership and military are drawing from the fighting in Ukraine. However, there is intelligence that the Chinese are “going into overdrive trying to work out what they think of this,” he said.

“As always with the Chinese, that is mixed in with a sort of ideological overlay that they are trying to draw the right lessons which will be approved of by President Xi as they go into the party congress,” Mr. Moore said, referring to a major party gathering set for the fall.

The result is that it is difficult to assess the likelihood of events such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

“But I am very clear — and this is one of the reasons why it is so essential that we tough it out on Ukraine, and we keep going through this winter and we help the Ukrainians to win, at least negotiate from a position of significant strength — is because Xi Jinping is watching this like a hawk,” he said.

Influence operations

In addition to spying activities, China also is using the United Front Work Department, a party organ, to conduct covert influence operations. British security agencies earlier this year identified a lawyer, Christine Lee, as engaged in covert “political interference activities” on behalf of the Chinese state.

Mr. Moore said influencing other nations is a normal diplomatic function. “It’s influencing other countries toward your position covertly, undeclared, using funding, that’s not [permitted],” he said, adding “there’s a lot of that going on.”

Chinese intelligence agents are “not 10 feet tall” and MI6 is determined to conduct counterspying operations against them, Mr. Moore said.

“We have this huge advantage in that we have friends, we have allies, we have the ability to work in a trusted way to take on this challenge,” he said.

China and Russia are moving into a closer strategic partnership following the agreement in February that called for “no limits” on cooperation between Beijing and Moscow, the MI6 chief noted.

“When President Xi says these things, he means them and we ought to listen hard,” he said. “I think that relationship is very clear. The Chinese are helping the Russians over Ukraine by buying their oil.”

Mr. Moore said Mr. Putin has failed in three main goals for the invasion of Ukraine — ousting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, capturing Kyiv and dividing and weakening the NATO alliance.

NATO is extremely united and expanding with the proposed addition of formerly neutral Sweden and Finland.

Mr. Moore said Russian intelligence services in Europe were hit hard by the post-invasion expulsions of some 400 Russian agents, reducing the Moscow spy presence by half. Two “illegal” intelligence officers — those operating without diplomatic cover, also were caught recently, including one in the Netherlands who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Like the Russian military, “I don’t think they’re having a great war,” Mr. Moore said of Russian intelligence.

The CIA’s Mr. Burns said Mr. Putin has hardened his views on Russia’s drive to become a major world power again and noted that his “appetite for risk has grown.” And he dismissed reports that the Russian leader was ill, either mentally or physically

“As far as we can tell, he’s fairly healthy,” he said.

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