The arrest of a British parliamentary researcher on suspicion of spying for China has reignited a fierce debate about the future of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Beijing.
The firestorm erupted over the weekend, when London’s Sunday Times newspaper reported the researcher was arrested alongside another man earlier this year under the UK’s Official Secrets act.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he raised “very strong concerns” about potential Chinese interference in Britain’s democracy during a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Qiang at the G20 in the Indian capital New Delhi last weekend. The Chinese Embassy in London denied the spying accusations, describing them as “completely fabricated” and “nothing but malicious slander.”
The arrested researcher, who has not been named by most media organizations, has released a statement via lawyers proclaiming his innocence. London’s Metropolitan Police said both men were being investigated by counter-terrorism police and had been released on bail until October.
Though the investigation remains ongoing, the episode has sparked calls from a number of high-profile lawmakers in the ruling Conservative Party for the government to take a harder line on China.
Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss called for the government to formally designate China as a threat to the UK. She was joined by former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, as well as a number of other senior party members.
UK’s Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden said on Monday that there was a “strong case” to officially designate China as a greater security risk than it is at present, though there is no clear indication the government intends to do so any time soon.
This view is not shared entirely across the party – least of all in the government. Despite Sunak’s condemnation of the alleged espionage, his spokesperson has strongly indicated that it wouldn’t affect immediate diplomatic relations – including whether or not China would be invited to Britain’s artificial intelligence summit in November.
The government’s official position on China is complicated. As Foreign Secretary James Cleverly outlined earlier this year, Britain’s approach is three-pronged.
“First, we will strengthen our national security protections wherever Beijing’s actions pose a threat to our people or our prosperity; second, the UK will deepen our cooperation and strengthen our alignment with our friends and partners in the Indo-Pacific and across the world; and the third pillar of our policy is to engage directly with China, bilaterally and multilaterally, to preserve and create open, constructive and stable relations, reflecting China’s global importance,” Cleverly said in April, several months before his August visit to Beijing – the first by a UK foreign secretary to China in more than five years.
Under the radar
But back to the question at hand: should the events of the past few days affect the UK’s official policy?
The British government is also well aware of the fact that China — along with many other countries, both allies and adversaries — engages in espionage. Officials monitor it, they expect more of it and they raise the issue directly.
This was reflected over the summer when parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee released a report outlining in detail its view that China was seeing to target and influence people in the UK’s political system.
And while allegations against the researcher are serious ones for the police to investigate, it is not entirely surprising that something like this could have taken place in Parliament, or any other official building.
Parliament screens people who are issued passes though a system designed to block individuals who “may be susceptible to pressure or improper influences,” “have shown dishonesty or lack of integrity which throws doubt upon their reliability,” or “have demonstrated behavior or are subject to circumstances which may otherwise indicate unreliability,” according to its website
On paper, that might look as though it should cover anyone who is alleged to have been spying on the UK. In practice, the screening procedures are “not always going to catch people who are determined to mislead,” said former British National Security Adviser Peter Ricketts.
In other words, the allegations against this person are serious, of course, but they are also not necessarily what one might imagine when hearing the word spy. If this were true, it is plausible it could have been sufficiently low-level and under the radar that security agencies failed to pick it up.
No policy change
The culture of politics in the UK also makes it a target for people who might want to carry out spying activities.
Networking is easy for those with a parliamentary pass; not only are there multiple bars in parliament, open late and serving subsidized alcohol, pass holders can also bring guests onto the estate. It is very common to see young guests of ambitious politicos enjoying a drink on the terrace overlooking the River Thames, gossiping and taking in the impressive neo-Gothic surroundings. It is a seductive environment for the driven, some of whom are less street smart than others.
Despite the arrests, observers believe it is unlikely there will be a sea-change in the UK government’s policy on China.
There are few at any senior level of politics who seriously believe that a more hostile approach to China is going to be beneficial to the UK in the long run.
The UK has been on a journey over the past few years in its approach to China. As recently as 2015, people at the top of the British government were talking about a “golden era” in UK-China relations.
Beijing’s security crackdown in Hong Kong, aggression in the South China Sea, threats to Taiwan, alleged human rights abuses of Uyghur Muslims, support for Russia and, of course, allegations of espionage against Western countries have all contributed to increased hawkishness in Westminster.
The UK has subsequently shifted away from involving China in things like critical national infrastructure. However, it is recognized that simply cutting China off from the UK won’t help in certain key areas.
For example, addressing the speed of climate change will be impossible unless China burns fewer fossil fuels. Diplomats and officials believe that disengagement with China would make that less likely.
The allegations that China is spying on the UK, in the very heart of Britain’s democracy, is of course a very real concern. But it will not be a surprise to the government, which has baked it into British foreign policy.
And right now, the UK certainly won’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it’s already walking a precarious tightrope with a country the size and power of China.