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‘Lumbering monster’ China threatens West’s tech supremacy, GCHQ boss warns

Sir Jeremy Fleming says action is needed if Western values are to shape the development of new technologies.

By Claudia Glover

Western nations must take action to counter the threat posed by “lumbering monsters” such as China vying for dominance of key technology areas, the GCHQ boss has said. Sir Jeremy Fleming believes the UK has a key role to play, but will need to change gears to fulfil its potential.

Head of GCHQ speaks about the leadership race at CyberUK in Belfast. (Photo by ROSLAN RAHMAN/Contributor Getty Images)

Speaking at the CyberUK conference, taking place in Belfast this week, Fleming said the West has enjoyed technological leadership for the bulk of the past century and this has led to some complacency setting in. As a result, action is needed to challenge the threat posed by countries such as China.

GCHQ boss: the UK must ‘change gears’ on tech

“It’s not just the fact that we have new kids on the block,” Fleming explained. “They are no longer kids. We have new, lumbering monsters out there who are taking much of our tech leadership.

“A whole range of new technologies are arriving at the same time, which are creating a wave of change of transformation, where the traditional ways of understanding what’s gone into them, how they’ve built, how they’ve been secured, are all in question.”

China now boasts some of the leading players in areas such as artificial intelligence development and the Internet of Things, and is growing its expertise in other technologies such as semiconductors to counter sanctions that have been placed on Chinese companies by the US and its allies as part of a long-running trade war.

According to a report released by think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), China has taken the lead in 37 out of 44 technologies it is currently tracking. This covers a range of crucial areas, from defence, space, robotics, artificial intelligence and quantum, among others.

ASPI’s technology tracker shows that, for some technologies, all of the world’s top ten leading research institutions are based in China. The US comes second in the majority of these cases. 

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Fleming, who is stepping down from his role later this year, said this is problematic, as in some cases China is “using technology in some ways that don’t accord with our values”.

He added that the UK has a significant role to play on the world stage when it comes to tech. Recent months have seen the government announce a raft of policies which aim to help make the UK the “world’s next Silicon Valley”. Fleming said: “As we think of the next generation of tech where geopolitics is in play, where we think about the prosperity offer that we have as the United Kingdom, we’re pretty nimble.” But, he added, to do this, “there’s another gear that we need to find”.

Read more: The GRU is using Russian hackers to hurt Ukraine, but is it losing control?

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