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Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament: China Report

Volume 833: debated on Monday 23 October 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament China, published on 13 July; and what steps they took to ensure that their response is consistent with their plan to tilt some UK military capability to the Indo-Pacific region, as set out in the Integrated Review and the Integrated Review Refresh 2023.

My Lords, His Majesty’s Government have taken a proactive approach in assessing the risks identified in the ISC report and are already addressing a number of the issues raised. Our commitment to the Indo-Pacific region was reaffirmed in the integrated review refresh with continued deployment of HMS “Spey” and HMS “Tamar”, and our maritime presence is set to be bolstered with the deployment of a littoral response group and a carrier strike group in 2025.

I thank the Minister for her Answer and congratulate the Government on sticking to their guns on this tilt to the Indo-Pac region. Geopolitically, it makes absolute sense for security—both globally and for the wealth of our nation. However, the most important geostrategic base in the Indian Ocean for the Americans and for us is Diego Garcia. With all the threats to our geostrategic position in that region, why are we now conducting negotiations with Mauritius, which has an ill-defined basis for saying that the island belongs to it and has 43 agreements with the Chinese perhaps to give Diego Garcia back to it? Mauritius never owned it.

As the noble Lord will be aware, our relationships with key partners provide us with platforms across a number of areas in the Indo-Pacific. We have a permanent presence in Brunei, and the British Defence Singapore Support Unit. He is correct that the United Kingdom and the United States share a defence facility in the British Indian Ocean Territory. That plays a vital role in our efforts to keep the region secure. We are very clear about its strategic significance and continue to have due regard to the significance of that location.

My Lords, the Question mentions the two integrated reviews. The first, in 2021, was a very good and helpful document but unfortunately came out before the Russian assault on Ukraine. The second, refreshing the first, was also excellent but unfortunately came out before the present Israel-Hamas horror and the complete change to the map of the Middle East. Can the Minister encourage the Cabinet Office not to be deterred from having a go at a third one, maybe in the early spring of next year, because these documents are genuinely valuable in showing our purpose and direction in a very fast-changing world?

I thank my noble friend for his recognition of the strategic significance of these documents and the enduring messages which both contain and which continue to suggest a pungent relevance to events in the world today. The issues to which he refers are deeply troubling and complex. As to whether the Government would contemplate a further integrated review, I cannot say, but I acknowledge his concern at the extent of global tumult that we are witnessing today.

My Lords, the Government of Mauritius have gone on record as saying that they will not interfere with the American use of the Diego Garcia base and that they have no intention to alter its status. I ought to declare an interest as a vice-chair of the all-party group on the Chagos Islands.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is very much better informed than I am but as I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord West, that location is of strategic significance to both the United Kingdom and the United States and we continue to do whatever we can to preserve that strategic presence.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether, in relation to the Chagos Islands, the Government are giving any consideration to a solution which would involve Diego Garcia becoming a sovereign base area of the United Kingdom while the rest of the Chagos Islands is returned to Mauritius?

These details are somewhat beyond my field of knowledge. This principally rests with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office but I shall certainly make inquiries. If I elicit any information I shall write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, I declare my interest as director of the Changing Character of War Centre at Oxford University. This substantial report rightly focuses on defending our country and our people from the political, economic and military threats in our relationship with China. However, there is an impression of an almost ineluctable trajectory towards war on the model of the so-called Thucydides trap. What are His Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that competition, rivalry and challenge, which are all entirely reasonable, do not slide into war with China? Is there an equivalent Indo-Pacific tilt in diplomatic resources and in our thinking about how we share the world with China?

In relation to China, the integrated review and the integrated review refresh represented a comprehensive approach across three interrelated pillars—protect, align and engage. The noble Lord will be aware that under these pillars there is significant, tangible evidence of how they are being implemented. To reassure him, I say that I have just returned from the Philippines and the Republic of Korea, where I was attending, among other things, the Seoul Defense Dialogue, one of the most significant defence fora in the region. There is an absolutely united desire that those who believe in the same values stand up together and learn more about each other. The warmth of reception that I received indicated that the United Kingdom is a very welcome presence in that region, as we endeavour to play our part in standing up for these values with friends and partners.

I put on record our thanks to my noble friend Lord West for his work on this comprehensive and crucial report. The Government’s response outlined additional funding for capabilities that respond to the systemic challenges posed by China. Given the concerns highlighted in the ISC report about the lack of integration of Defence Intelligence into the wider intelligence framework, can the Minister confirm that DI will receive the additional resource pledged?

For understandable reasons, in the MoD we regard Defence Intelligence as a pivotal part of our operation and defence capability. Quite rightly, it is highly regarded within the UK and globally. It is important that we share these facilities and what we can do with that capability with friends and allies, which we do. Particularly on the noble Baroness’s question, I say that the report indicated a need for us to have regard to what we are doing in this country to augment the infrastructure for engaging with China. She is aware that there has been increased funding, government wide, for a China capabilities programme that embraces Mandarin language training and in-depth diplomatic expertise. A lot of concerted work has been done across the piece.

My Lords, I was very surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, passed up the opportunity to mention the Commonwealth, so I will jump in in his stead. The Commonwealth is strongly represented in many nations, islands and territories throughout the Indo-Pacific region. What strategy do the Government have to strengthen, reinforce and foster this network, and to counter China’s rather obvious attempts to undermine it?

It is important that we have a coherent approach to the Indo-Pacific, and I strongly suggest that this is exactly what we have. We work bilaterally, minilaterally and multilaterally across a range of fora, with a range of countries in the region, some of which are Commonwealth countries and others which are not. The important thing is that we have a strategic united vision, which was demonstrated when I was at this defence dialogue in Seoul. It was uplifting and encouraging to see a unity of purpose, for everyone to stand together and, by doing that, to recognise the strength that this unanimity represents.

My Lords, going back to the question of the Chagos Islands, what steps are being taken to ensure that the views of the Chagossians, who were thrown off those islands, are being taken into account in negotiations about the future of the islands?

I do not have any specific knowledge about that. It is very much a matter for the FCDO but I will make inquiries, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and respond to the noble Baroness.

We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Swinburne, that the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Rainow, is stuck on a train from Manchester. Unlike him. I have made it here on the train in time for Questions. That is very unusual and exceptional for a Monday, but being here has been instructive. From the complacent and lackadaisical replies we have had on education, the health service and housing—the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, is the exception, as she actually gave us a decent reply—it is clear that the Government have run out of steam. That is why 75% of the British public want an election now. Will she show the courage that I know she has and say that she agrees with them?

My Lords, when I receive praise emanating from the noble Lord, I think of Greeks bearing gifts. I have not been present to hear the responses to all the Questions, but my impression is that I am blessed with some exceedingly talented colleagues, who discharge themselves with remarkable aplomb and skill. Lest he gets too excited, I should say that the Government are pursuing an exciting and visionary programme. In preparation for my Question, I was looking at the absolute raft of legislation that has been passed to address the very legitimate concerns of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Directly relevant to those concerns were the National Security Act, a national investment Act, a telecommunications Act and a higher education Act, all about protecting our indigenous UK infrastructure—whether that is essential critical national infrastructure, how our academic communities operate, or how we support the endeavours of the Government with the FCDO and the MoD. Far from running out of steam, this train is rattling along the track in great style.