Main Image Credit Wide of the mark: Rishi Sunak's proposal for a 'tech-NATO' to counter Chinese threats is unlikely to succeed. Image: Rory Arnold / No 10 Downing Street / OGL v3.0
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s proposal during his leadership campaign for a ‘tech-NATO’ to tackle technology challenges posed by China is the wrong idea at the right time.
Rishi Sunak, the UK’s third prime minister in as many months, faces pressing domestic and international challenges. During his summer leadership campaign, Sunak, who has no ministerial foreign policy experience, put forward an ambitious plan to counter China’s tech power – advocating a new ‘NATO-style international alliance to face down Chinese threats’. Now in office, he has reaffirmed his focus on ‘China’s malign influence’ in a call with US President Joe Biden, and must deliver strategic direction or risk the UK’s international credibility.
The new prime minister has described China as the ‘biggest-long term threat to Britain’, and has correctly identified technology as the central arena of competition. While running for the national leadership, he asserted that China actively steals intellectual property, infiltrates university research programmes, conducts hostile cyber operations, and promotes dependencies on its tech products.
Sunak’s leadership campaign put forward both domestic and international measures to mitigate these threats. Domestically, he proposed an expansion of MI5’s powers to fight industrial espionage and to directly support universities and businesses, for example by building a national security-led ‘toolkit to help companies protect their intellectual property’. In addition, Sunak pledged to close all Confucius Institutes at UK universities – a policy his government has now announced it will pursue – and to examine Chinese takeovers of UK assets, especially tech companies. How this would expand on existing controls under the National Security and Investment Act, which are often poorly or inconsistently applied, is unclear.
Internationally, Sunak’s campaign suggested ambitious policies to counter Chinese cyber threats and ensure technology security, advocating a ‘new [NATO-like] international alliance of free nations’. Composed primarily of existing UK intelligence partners from the Five Eyes alliance and AUKUS strategic partnership, Sunak envisioned both Japan and India as potential additional members. His plan, therefore, seeks to unite long-time allies – Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada – with major Indo-Pacific democracies, thus, providing strategic continuity with the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt outlined in the 2021 Integrated Review.
While proposing new international organisations can seem appealing to fresh politicians with an unruly base, threats from China can be addressed in existing bodies
While Sunak’s pitch draws crucial attention to cyber and technology threats from China, and the corresponding risk for the UK and its allies from inaction, his proposal so far remains underdeveloped and undefined; perhaps it was only intended to make his leadership bid seem ‘hard’ on China. Be that as it may, the new prime minister will need to continue to shore up his reputation on foreign policy, so could his idea come to fruition?
If Sunak is hoping to lean on the Five Eyes alliance to marshal policy efforts against China’s tech challenges, he is mistaken. The alliance collects and analyses information; it does not coordinate its members' strategic policymaking. Even if his idea is to leverage full group membership to bring India and Japan closer to UK interests, it is uncertain whether they could or would want to join. Japan’s intelligence collection capabilities are underdeveloped, lacking even a dedicated intelligence agency, and India’s government is unsure about membership. Not to mention other Five Eyes partners, who would not take well to the UK trying to steer the group for its own interests.
Similarly, an entirely novel ‘NATO-like’ organisation is a poor proposal when existing bodies will do. The Quad, a grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia, already promotes a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ – code for countering China – across issues including cyber security and technology. The US–EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC) goes a step further by explicitly ‘addressing global trade and technology challenges’. And NATO itself has, in the face of Russia’s war in Ukraine, found renewed vigour to tackle long-term security challenges. Although locked out of TTC discussions, the UK is in NATO and able to aspire to Quad involvement; a new initiative would thus be an unnecessary distraction that risks fragmentation when a common approach is needed.
While proposing new international organisations can seem appealing to fresh politicians with an unruly base, threats from China can be addressed in existing bodies. For starters, NATO can – and must – address long-term technology threats, including those posed by China. NATO members currently do not have a common strategic approach to technology infrastructure, with Huawei’s involvement in national 5G telecommunications a prominent example. The US has strongly lobbied against Huawei, and the UK – arguably in reaction to the US – similarly banned Huawei equipment from its infrastructure, with existing parts to be removed by 2027. In contrast, Germany sat on the fence about Huawei involvement for almost two years before restricting the role of ‘untrustworthy’ suppliers in its 5G networks, but much like the Netherlands, Austria and Spain, it has not adopted a complete ban. Continued Chinese investment in Europe’s critical infrastructure – for example, in Hamburg’s ports or across Greece – is a major risk and illustrates how divided NATO members are on China. Such strategic incoherence weakens the alliance’s resilience.
Without clear direction and broad-based international cooperation, Sunak’s government risks the UK becoming an ineffective part of the liberal democratic response to China’s technology threats
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, has changed the geopolitical context significantly. NATO itself is now at its most united since the Cold War, and members want to act on national security. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed this new level of unity by setting out ‘a fundamental shift in our defence and deterrence to respond to a new security reality’. More concretely, NATO has announced a new technology initiative called DIANA, fostering research, development and coordination among start-ups, tech companies and researchers. Start-ups and other tech funds are further supported through a €1 billion venture capital fund. This, coupled with a growing awareness of Chinese cyber attacks and democracies’ reliance on authoritarian states for tech, opens the door for the UK to further drive conversations within NATO on addressing long-term threats. The aim should be a common strategy on issues including cyber security standards, attribution and supply chain risks, meaning members can jointly achieve greater resilience vis-à-vis Chinese tech threats. The UK could also potentially explore greater integration of Indo-Pacific democracies into NATO, rather than launching a whole new initiative.
Outside NATO, groupings like the Quad – whose members are rooted in the Indo-Pacific – have more legitimacy and opportunities to counter China than a novel UK-driven endeavour. They can pursue strategic coherence by jointly mitigating risks to their supply chains and conducting information-sharing on cyber threats, while also supporting smaller regional countries against Chinese ambitions – truly championing an alternative ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. As India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks forward to building a ‘modern partnership’ with Rishi Sunak, now may be the moment for the UK to leverage good relations and push to participate in the Quad. The UK also needs to pursue stronger ties with the EU, which plays a central role in shaping the global technology agenda, including through the US–EU TTC.
Outside the EU and excluded from the Quad, the UK finds itself on the side-lines as global liberal democracies respond to China’s technology threats. If Rishi Sunak wants to improve the UK’s position, he should act decisively, not pursue personal projects delivered as offhand soundbites. Internationally, he must rebuild broken bridges and strengthen existing ties to ensure the UK has a seat at the table. This begins with setting a clear direction at home. Publishing a China Strategy is an essential next step, as is delivering on the promised International Technology Strategy. Without clear direction and broad-based international cooperation, Sunak’s government risks the UK becoming an ineffective part of the liberal democratic response to China’s technology threats.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Analyst for Cyber, Technology and National Security