Britain must avoid becoming dependent on new technology from China as Beijing has demonstrated during the coronavirus outbreak that the country “isn’t going to play by our rules”, Lord Hague of Richmond has warned.
The former foreign secretary highlighted how the UK had been “caught out” in the telecoms sector, where a lack of alternative suppliers had forced ministers to allow the Chinese company Huawei to install Britain’s 5G mobile infrastructure.
Critics accuse Huawei of posing a security risk, alleging that it could facilitate espionage or sabotage by the Chinese state via 5G networks. The company denies the claims.
Advocating a new “hard-headed” approach to China in the West, Lord Hague, who served as foreign secretary between 2010 and 2014, urged the government to examine China’s growing dominance over other emerging technologies.
“Here in the UK we’re preparing for an age of electric transportation, but which country is getting ahead with battery technology? China,” he told a web seminar hosted by Policy Exchange, the London-based centre-right think tank.
The peer, 59, raised concerns that Chinese state-owned enterprises were buying up global supplies of rare earth metals, cobalt and lithium, which are essential to manufacture batteries.
“We can’t have supply chains that are dependent for ever on China, that is exemplified by this current crisis, and we have to have regard to future technology and resources,” he said.
Britain must pursue a dual track approach of seeking to avoid strategic dependency on Beijing while accepting that China’s co-operation would be required to solve global problems, from climate change to antibiotic resistance, Lord Hague added.
The former Tory leader painted a bleak picture of the West’s ability to tackle China over its handling of coronavirus or its subsequent disinformation campaign over the pandemic’s likely origins. “We don’t have that much of a stick,” he conceded.
The leading scientific theory is that the virus originated in the wet markets of Wuhan city in the province of Hubei, in which wild animals are sold live with few regulatory constraints.
Lord Hague said: “Can any of us see China agreeing to and permitting an international investigation into what’s happened here? I think that’s very unlikely and there have been co-ordinated attempts by China, on social media, to spread ideas that it was somebody else’s fault, including the fault of the United States.”
While Beijing’s disinformation campaign had been “clumsy” and “easily exposed”, it had nonetheless highlighted the nation’s intent to eschew transparency.
China’s behaviour suggested an acceptance internally that the virus came from its wet markets. “Why are they making new laws that you should not be able to trade or consume illegal wildlife in their markets any more? Because they know full well what the most likely explanation for this [pandemic] has been,” Lord Hague said.
Others were less swift to accept that an international inquiry could encounter obstacles. Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, renewed calls yesterday for a global inquiry.
“We need an international investigation into the Covid-19 epidemic,” he wrote on Twitter. “It has already cost too many lives and will take many more. We cannot allow cover-ups or lies to put us all at risk. Even now, false data from Beijing is undermining our ability to respond.”
A hardline strategy against China was also outlined by Lieutenant-General HR McMaster, the former US national security adviser to President Trump, during the seminar.
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He accused China of “perfecting this Orwellian surveillance police state internally and becoming more and more aggressive externally”, adding: “This is an authoritarian dictatorship that is trying to extend and tighten its exclusive grip on power.”
The West should “get some more backbone” and minimise its dependence on China, he said. “We have to compete — and recognise that this is a competition between free and open societies and a closed, authoritarian system imposed on the Chinese people by the Chinese Communist Party.”