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August 29, 2023updated 30 Aug 2023 9:47am

James Cleverly set for cybersecurity talks with China as Japan is hit by Beijing’s hackers

Relations between the two countries are at a "low point", and this week's bilateral meeting is unlikely to bring about big changes.

By Claudia Glover

Cybersecurity will be high on the agenda when UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly travels to Beijing tomorrow to meet with his Chinese counterpart. But the bilateral talks – the first such summit in five years – come against the backdrop of continued cyber-espionage operations against the UK’s allies from hackers thought to be backed by the Chinese government. Today, it was reported that Japan’s cybersecurity agency had been infiltrated by criminals from China, who may have had access to sensitive material for nine months.

James Cleverly
Talks between UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Chinese officials will take place on Wednesday. (Photo by Dan Morar/Shutterstock)

Cleverly will meet with Wang Yi, China’s minister of foreign affairs and director of the office of the central foreign affairs commission, as well as vice-president Han Zheng. “China’s size, history and global significance means they cannot be ignored, but that comes with a responsibility on the global stage,” he said. “That responsibility means China fulfilling its international commitments and obligations.”

Will James Cleverly’s trip to China be a success?

The foreign secretary says he will use the visit to “strengthen channels of communication to further and protect British interests”. Earlier this year, he laid out a three-pronged approach to the UK’s relationship with China, encompassing protecting the UK’s national security, upholding international law, and promoting constructive dialogue between the countries.

Cybersecurity is central to the wider security effort, not least because China has engaged in a decades-long cyber-espionage campaign to steal information from the UK and its allies, including European countries and those in the Five Eyes security alliance.

In May the Five Eyes nations – the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – issued a joint warning about Chinese-state sponsored hackers Volt Typhoon, were targeting critical national infrastructure, while weeks later Jen Easterly, head of US cybersecurity agency CISA, said China was intent on causing “disruption and destruction” in the US through cyberattacks. UK officials have been similarly critical, with the outgoing head of the UK’s GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming, describing China as a “lumbering monster” threatening the tech dominance of Western countries.

When it comes to trade, tech has also become a sticking point for UK-China relations, with the government blocking the takeover of Newport Wafer Fab, the UK’s largest chip factory, by Nexperia, a company partly owned by a Chinese group with close links to the government. The government has also been supportive of export controls placed on China by the US, which has been seeking to restrict the supply of semiconductors and other key technologies.

With so many big issues on the table, Cleverly’s talks, which will also cover topics including climate change and the war in Ukraine, are unlikely to prove productive, says Emily Taylor, an associate fellow with the international security programme at thinktank Chatham House. “This is the first official visit in five years, indicating what a low point the UK-China relationship has reached since the heady days of Cameron and Osborne’s proactive cultivation of Chinese inward investment,” says Taylor,

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She believes technology remains a point of significant conflict between the UK and China, “as evidenced in the shift in policy on Huawei and 5G, tensions over semiconductors and hardening of restrictions on contracts with ‘high risk’ vendors”. She adds that “China’s role in shaping digital standards for emerging technologies is also a major strategic risk.”

Taylor says there is little realistic prospect of change. “It’s easy for both sides to say that they want a more productive relationship, and clearly, there are issues such as climate change which cannot be resolved without close cooperation between all states,” she adds. “But it’s difficult to see how these words can be translated into actions on technology, given the many policy statements and trade restrictions by the UK and its allies in recent years.”

Japan hit by major cyberattack from Chinese hackers

Governments and businesses continue to battle Chinese hackers. Today it was reported Japan’s cybersecurity agency has been hacked by Chinese government-sponsored cybercriminals. The attack on Japan’s National Centre of Incident Readiness and Strategy for Cybersecurity (NISC), began last autumn and was not detected until June, according to sources who spoke to the FT.

Japan’s defence networks were previously attacked by Chinese hackers in 2020, and in July, an attack on the Japanese Port of Nagoya is thought to have been part of an attempt by China to test the strength of Japan’s defences. The incident was initially reported as a ransomware attack.

Facebook parent company Meta revealed today that it had uncovered links between people associated with Chinese law enforcement and the pro-China “spamouflage” influence operation aimed at promoting pro-Beijing content. It has removed around 7,700 Facebook accounts and hundreds of other pages, groups and Instagram accounts connected to the campaign, elements of which have been active since 2018.

Read more: How to sell a chip in China

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