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GCHQ chief calls for greater quantum investment, warns of looming Chinese tech dominance

Fleming said that the politically motivated actions of the Chinese state represent an urgent problem that must be addressed

GCHQ's director has called on the UK to invest in quantum technology after warning of impending Chinese technology domination.

In a speech made today, Jeremy Fleming underlined that when it comes to technology, the politically motivated actions of the Chinese state are an increasingly urgent problem that must be acknowledged and addressed.

The nation’s security and prosperity is dependent on "mastering quantum capabilities", he said, without clarifying exactly why quantum technology is of such importance.

The UK needs to maintain a mystery of bleeding-edge tech and systems exponentially more powerful than our current digital technologies that push at the edges of known physics, the director added.

Fleming said the UK must continue to make deep investments in the next generation of key technologies or risk compromising national security and prosperity.

He also warned that the UK’s companies, universities, and intelligence agencies cannot afford to be late to the quantum revolution, or to be relaxed about the extent to which others, perhaps especially in China, are watching their progress.

The definition of national security is being changed into a much broader concept by the actions of China, he said, before branding technology a battleground for control, values, and influence.

“We and our like-minded allies see technology as a way to enable greater freedoms, greater prosperity, greater global collaboration,” said Fleming. “And yes, fair competition. But the Chinese leadership’s approach is to also see it as a tool to gain advantage through control: of their markets, of those in their sphere of influence, and of their own citizens.”

Fleming also mentioned that there are wider concerns about China’s actions around the world. An example of this is in the Solomon Islands, where huge Chinese loans are paying for China tech upgrades. The deals countries are making with China have serious strings attached, he said, which could be offers of new technologies like smart cities, which have the potential to export surveillance and data, or demands for new bilateral security treaties.

“In a future crisis, Beijing could exploit information covertly extracted from client economies and governments, but no doubt use its monopoly to demand compliance in international fora,” explained Fleming. “To catch a glimpse of that future, one need only look at how China has already sought to do just this, leveraging its influence over many smaller nations in votes over technology, ethics and foreign policy.”

China's world-leading rate of patent filings was highlighted and used to exemplify the rate at which the country is developing as a technology-first nation. A total of 43% of the world's patents were filed by Chinese nationals in 2019 and 11% of the UK's research output now includes Chinese authors, too.

He also mentioned China’s digital yuan, and said the way it’s being implemented allows the monitoring of citizens and forces companies to use the service. In the future, it could allow the country to partially evade the sorts of financial sanctions currently being applied to Russia, he warned.

Fleming also referred to China’s development of the BeiDou satellite system, a rival alternative to the GPS, and how the government has forced Chinese citizens and businesses to adopt it and how it’s being built into Chinese exports to more than 120 countries. The BeiDou system is the same technology used by Huawei’s new Huawei Mate 50 phone which was revealed last month.

“Many believe that China is building a powerful anti-satellite capability, with a doctrine of denying other nations access to space in the event of a conflict,” he said. “And there are fears the technology could be used to track individuals.”

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Fleming also said China is seeking to subvert or redesign global security standards in a bid for control. He pointed to the “New IP” standards submitted by China to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in 2018.

He said that although these standards appeared to come from Chinese industry, the hands of the state were very clear since Chinese tech companies are rarely allowed to move in the space without direction from the government.

The New IP standards proposed would have fundamentally changed some of the principles which underlie the internet, said Fleming. It would reduce interoperability causing fragmentation of systems, and move away from the multistakeholder model, towards greater governmental control, while introducing new tracking methods.

“Thankfully, this proposal has not taken root in the ITU, and the UK had a role in this,” he said.

Aside from investing in quantum technology, Fleming also called for the UK to continue with its deep engagement with the global market. This includes the importance of the chip supply chain, highlighting how important Taiwan is and how the UK cannot recreate the scale of Taiwan’s manufacturing capabilities. 

Fleming added that any risks to Taiwan and its chip supply chain have the potential to directly impact the resilience of the UK and global future growth, underlining that this is one example of why the UK tilted its national security and defence efforts towards the Indo-Pacific.

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