Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence service has retooled the storied spy agency 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,” said Richard Moore, chief of what is called the Secret Intelligence Service.
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 free societies.
“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.
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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.
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.”
Mr. Moore said it is too early to tell what lessons the Chinese leadership and military are drawing from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stalled invasion of Ukraine.
However, there is intelligence 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.
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.
However, based on Ukraine and other Western behaviors, “it is really important that President Xi … looks at what can go wrong with a misjudged invasion” in Ukraine, Mr. Moore said.
“We’re seeing that play out. I think it’s important that we remind him of the risks. It’s important that we prepare accordingly.”
The West needs to send clear messages regarding a unified response to any attack on Taiwan and build up the tools needed to prevent any Chinese miscalculation, he noted.
On China’s intelligence services, another major target of MI6 counterintelligence activities, Mr. Moore said counterspies are focused on China within the so-called “Five Eyes” group of intelligence agencies from the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Chinese intelligence operations were the focus of recent joint speeches by FBI Director Christopher Wray and Ken McCallum, director of the British domestic intelligence agency MI5.
Mr. Wray described China as the most significant long-term U.S. national security threat and Mr. McCallum called Beijing a “massive shared challenge.”
Mr. Moore said Chinese intelligence is “extraordinarily well resourced” and has dispatched “hundreds of thousands” of civilian intelligence officers to steal secrets and technology. The Chinese military also is engaged in aggressive spying operations.
“They are ferociously active right across the cyber domain,” Mr. Moore said.
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.”
CIA Director Bill Burns, speaking at the same conference on Wednesday, said the Chinese have been cautious regarding the provision of military aid to Russia.
Mr. Moore said: “But I’m sure if they could provide that and get away with it, they would.”
Diplomatically, Chinese diplomats and propaganda organs are promoting the Russian narrative on the origins of the Ukraine conflict aggressively, Mr. Moore said.
“And they’re doing it without any sense of irony,” he said, adding that Chinese frequently highlights the importance of respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity but has not broken with Russia over Moscow’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.
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.