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Biggest threats UK faces come from Russia and China, former MI6 head tells LBC

26 February 2021, 10:18 | Updated: 26 February 2021, 10:45

By Megan White

The biggest threats the UK faces are "state actors" like Russia and China, and not terror groups such as Islamic State, former MI6 boss Sir John Sawers has told LBC.

Speaking to LBC's Nick Ferrari, Sir John said that although there is a "real concern" over right wing groups and a "major challenge from Islamic terrorism", Russia and China pose the biggest threat by attempting to "damage the west" through cyberattacks and "paying for political division."

He said China has "evolved in a direction where at home it’s much more oppressive," branding it "a difficult regime, a powerful regime."

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MI5 director general Ken McCallum previously said there was a “toxic mix of threats” coming from Islamist extremism, Northern Ireland and the extreme right, but Sir John said: “I don’t think any of them are the biggest threat we face – I think the biggest threats we face are from state actors like China and Russia.

“But of those three you mention, I think we still face a major challenge from Islamic terrorism – it hasn’t gone away, as we saw in France last year and we saw here a few years ago.

“And this rise of right wing violence, which we saw in New Zealand a year or two ago, we’ve seen widely in America – I think that’s a real concern that right wing groups feel they can advance their agenda by organising activities like the insurrection in Washington last month.”

Asked what his fear was of countries such as Russia and China, Sir John said: “I think China is now on a par with the United States in terms of the size of its economy, but it has decided against having a system of openness and political debate inside China.

“It’s much more focussed on its own control and advancing its interests assertively abroad.

“With Russia, it’s heavily dependent on oil and gas revenues and so on, but it’s a country that’s not going to be a major world power in economic terms.

“It still has major military power, as we’ve seen in Ukraine, and its ability to disrupt the west.

“Both countries think that by damaging the west through cyberattacks and by paying for political division in the west, that will advance their interests.

“I think that’s our biggest challenge – keeping our political unity at home and keeping our alliances together.”

Asked about the dangers posed to the UK by China, Sir John said: “I think over the last ten years, we’ve seen China evolve in a direction where at home it’s much more oppressive – we’ve seen that in Hong Kong, we’ve seen that with the repression of the Uighurs, the tax on building military power in the South China Sea and so on.

“I think we’ve seen it during the course of the coronavirus, where they were very bad at cooperating with the World Health Organisation initially, they sought to manipulate the control of Personal Protection Equipment, and so on.

“It’s a difficult regime, a powerful regime.

“We can’t contain it like we contain the Soviet Union, we have to compete and challenge it in various areas and we have to do it as a unified west, and that’s been more difficult recently with President Trump in the White House – I think it should be easier now we have a Biden administration.”

Sir John added: “It’s because President Biden and his team believe one of America’s greatest strengths is its network of alliances with countries like Britain, in our Five Eyes Partnership on intelligence, with Europe generally, with Japan and South Korea and with India.

“As a western alliance, an international alliance, we can take a common approach towards China and compete with it much more effectively than we can on our own.

“President Trump was right to call out China – he was the first American President really to challenge China – but he did it in a characteristically thrashing around way and he didn’t build on America’s great strengths, which is its capacity to form international coalitions.

Sir John said he thinks the British Government is “robust” in its relationship with China, adding that he thought Dominic Raab’s decision to allow Hong Kong citizens to come to the UK was a “very positive step.”

He added: “I think we’re right to be wary of China buying up our tech companies, sending their students to investigate highly sensitive defence subjects at British universities, so we need to be tougher on these things.

“But we are a bit on our own now, we have to work closely with the European Union and the United States, as well as with our Asian partners, because we can’t stand up to China on our own, we have to be part of an international grouping.”