A stark warning on China

18th July 2022
It started with a tip from a guy I know who works on harbour boats in the Port of Gibraltar. It ended with a text from an intelligence analyst who saw my name on a classified US report and messaged me gleefully: “Congratulations! You’ve been tapped by the Chinese.”

It was over a decade ago but I remembered the episode recently while reading the transcript of an unprecedented joint conference by the heads of MI5 and the FBI on the threat of Chinese espionage. The stark warning from the security chiefs was drowned out by the noise of Boris Johnson’s resignation, but it’s a message that anyone in government or business should take careful note of, including here in Gibraltar.

Gibraltar does limited trade with China, but that may change in a post-Brexit world where this community is seeking opportunities beyond our European backyard.

The Gibraltar Government, for example, is working with the UK-based subsidiary of a Chinese construction company that has pioneered modular building techniques. The University of Gibraltar has partnered with a Chinese university to collaborate on blockchain research and educational initiatives. Some Gibraltar-based firms have made early tentative forays in search of Chinese business.

And why not? A small slice of Asian trade, a few crumbs even, would go a long way here.

Two years ago, Zak Dychtwald, the founder of the Young China Group, a thinktank focused on understanding trends among the country’s youth, said Gibraltar could position itself to help Chinese companies seeking opportunities in the western world, especially in areas such as financial services and the DLT sector.

“I think of Gibraltar as sort of a bridge between different parts of the world, different cultures, different products, different services, different sensibilities,” he told me during a visit to the Rock, where he addressed a dinner hosted by billionaire businesswoman Ruth Parasol.

“And what China needs now more than ever are bridges, because so much of the world is turning off to China. So much of the world isn't willing to be a bridge or doesn't have experience with meeting a different culture halfway. Gibraltar has that.”

The warning from MI5 and the FBI earlier this month doesn’t mean not doing business with China. But it does mean being aware of the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party’s [CCP] covert activities around the globe.

The advice was “not to cut off from China”, said Ken McCallum, the Director General of MI5.

“We want a UK which is both connected and resilient.”

Rather, the security chiefs were highlighting the activities of certain parts of the Chinese state and “not the Chinese people” who they “wholeheartedly welcome”, Mr McCallum said.

“If my remarks today elicit accusations of Sinophobia from an authoritarian CCP, I trust you’ll see the irony.”

But the UK – and by extension, Gibraltar - needs to become a “harder target” by becoming more aware of the risks, even while seeking opportunities with Chinese partners.

Part of the challenge is that threats of this nature always come cloaked in smoke and mirrors and often sound remote, sometimes even fanciful.

Which takes me back to my anecdote.

The seed was one of those casual five-minute conversations on Main Street. “Every time a warship docks in the south mole, a Chinese ship turns up for bunkers in the anchorage just opposite,” my port friend told me. It sounded like a conspiracy theory but I filed it at the back of my mind for a quiet day and eventually found time to cross-reference commercial and military shipping lists. He was right. I found multiple examples stretching back many months. And it was always the same two or three Chinese ships operated by the same state-owned companies.

My interest piqued, I chatted about this with a British military source who smiled knowingly and gave me a wink and a nudge alongside a bland on-the-record answer. ‘We monitor all shipping around Gibraltar’, that sort of thing. Discretely though, he pointed me to the Americans.

The following day upstairs in Sacarello’s, I had a chat with a US Navy guy I knew who dealt routinely with Gibraltar. He was nonchalant but said he’d mention it to his people. I strolled back to the newsroom and 20 minutes later the phone rang. It was a chap who said he worked for a branch of US Navy intelligence in Rota: “Brian, I’m coming to see you.”

The next morning in a Casemates café, we spoke for the best part of two hours. He quizzed me on what I knew, which admittedly wasn’t much. We spoke about Chinese ships in the bay. We also spoke about Taiwan and Chinese foreign policy. We discussed too the US Aegis missile technology which Taiwan was eyeing at the time. We spoke about signals intelligence. There was nothing discussed that you couldn’t find already published online. But in effect, he was confirming, without doing so explicitly, that I might be onto something. He pointed me to some declassified US senate reports that filled in some gaps. They contained details of the same companies that operated the Chinese ships that seemed to trail warships calling in Gibraltar port, describing them as the merchant arm of the Chinese navy and claiming they were involved in intelligence gathering around the globe. Claims China denied, obviously.

So there I was with what seemed like a great tale, except no one would go on the record with a subject like this. It was all whispers and nudges and carefully-crafted replies that could be interpreted multiple ways. There was nothing solid and very little to peg a story on other than the presence of these ships in the bay. We’d trawled through months of data and found numerous examples. We even had photos to prove it. But it could all be coincidence.

And then, as often happens, serendipity stepped in. In rare public comments, senior MI5 officials warned publicly that China, even back then, posed “one of the most significant espionage threats” to Britain. We had the hook we were after and ran the story.

A week later, I received a strange email from someone in China who claimed to work for a defence magazine and wanted to know if I’d be a contributor and send them information from Gibraltar. The email had a rather ominous-looking link in the text. Resisting the temptation to click it, I phoned my new acquaintance in Rota, sent him the email and deleted it. He said it was wise to be cautious and left it at that. But a couple of weeks later, my analyst friend contacted me to say he’d seen my name on a US report about possible approaches by Chinese intelligence. Congratulations indeed.

Was that email really from a Chinese spook? Was the link a dodgy attempt to hack my account? Were the Chinese ships involved in anything nefarious, or were they just buying fuel? The simple answer is I don’t know and never will. It was all quite exciting and slightly worrying at the time, even if it also felt somewhat implausible when one paused for breath. Now, years later, it sounds ridiculous as I write these words, akin to the reds-under-bed paranoia of the Cold War era before the Berlin Wall came down.

Except this stuff happens. Consider what the heads of MI5 and the FBI told us just a few days ago.

Addressing an audience of business leaders and academics in London, MI5’s Mr McCallum said the agency would double its investigations into Chinese espionage in the face of the “game-changing” threat posed by the ruling Communist Party.

MI5 is running seven times as many probes into Chinese activity as it was four years ago, he said, and plans to “grow as much again” to tackle the widespread activity which pervades “so many aspects of our national life”.

Standing alongside the director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, at MI5’s Thames House headquarters, the two men also warned that if China invaded Taiwan as feared, this could “represent one of the most horrific business disruptions the world has ever seen”.

They were speaking for the first time in public together to “send the clearest signal we can on a massive, shared challenge: China”, Mr McCallum said.

“The most game-changing challenge we face comes from the Chinese Communist Party. It’s covertly applying pressure across the globe … We need to talk about it. We need to act.”

Describing the CCP’s use of clandestine, coercive or corrupt methods to launch “deceptive” plots to buy and exert influence as well as the use of “sophisticated interference efforts”, Mr McCallum said the threat was a “co-ordinated campaign on a grand scale”. Mr Wray described it as “breath-taking”.

Describing the threat as a “complex, enduring and pervasive danger” to “innovative businesses” which was “getting worse” and was “even more serious” than many realise, Mr McCallum said: “We consistently see that it’s the Chinese government that poses the biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security, and by ‘our’ I mean both our nations, along with our allies in Europe and elsewhere.”

Mr Wray told the audience Beijing’s administration is “set on stealing your technology, whatever it is that makes your industry tick, and using it to undercut your business and dominate your market”.

Over the last year the UK has shared intelligence about Chinese cyber threats with 37 countries and in May disrupted a “sophisticated threat” against aerospace companies, Mr McCallum said.

“China has for far too long counted on being everybody’s second-highest priority,” Mr Wray said, adding: “They are not flying under the radar anymore.”

The UK, through bodies such as the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure and the National Cyber Security Centre, works with businesses to identify risks and mitigate them. But it’s not easy.

“No set of guidance can cater with precision for each and every situation: I’m afraid I can’t make this simple for you,” Mr McCallum said. “The answers have to lie in combining our unique knowledge of the threats, with your unique knowledge of your business.”

He urged companies to assess whether they had a strategic approach to these risks, “or is it the subject you never quite get to?”

“Do you have a thoughtful security culture at all levels in your organisation? Or does everyone leave it to a Security Department that’s off to one side, only to be contacted in an emergency?”

“Does your organisation know what its crown jewels are, which if stolen would compromise your future?”

“Have you put in place the right controls to assess the risks attached to your funding sources and partnerships, and to protect your supply chain?”

Implausible as it might sound that one might get caught up in something like this, the warning offers food for thought, and for action.

Beware the Chinese

The Coming War with China, etc

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The "Beware the Chinese" Letter has been updated on The Gibraltar Messenger Newsletter website

It also includes a reference to the above article, with a link back to DG.

A lot of information was reported in "Gibraltar's Interest in China's BRI Initiative Might NOT BE in the best interest of Gibraltar" concerning the CCP using commercial BRI-related ventures as a cover for their military ambitions, including their interests in PORTS:

And isn't it interesting that the topic of those modular buildings for the elderly was brought up on Defending-Gibraltar?

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China's Army Posts "Get Ready For War!" Message On Social Media, State Mouthpiece Says PLA Has "Right" To Intercept Pelosi's Plane

Update(1408ET): The Chinese government's English language mouthpiece Global Times has grown particularly loud and bellicose in response to Nancy Pelosi's potential trip to the self-ruled island of Taiwan:

"Get ready for war!" read a message posted by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) 80th Group over the US visit to Taiwan, as reported on Friday, July 29. China’s Army’s war message over the potential US visit to Taiwan reportedly generated over 300,000 thumbs-up in just 12 hours, creating "high morale among Chinese soldiers" according to Global Times.

Below: reportedly the message in question appearing on a PLA channel Friday on the popular Chinese social media app Weibo:

GT further reminds its audience that, possibly corresponding with a Pelosi Taiwan visit (assuming she goes through with it), the country will celebrate the 95th anniversary of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) military...

The 80th Group Army posted a comment saying, "we must bear in mind the fundamental responsibility of preparing for war and charge on the journey of a strong army." The comment has received 8,000 thumbs-up.

...Ahead of the 95th anniversary of the founding of the PLA on August 1, Xi, also the general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, stressed the need for further implementing the strategy of strengthening the armed forces by training competent personnel in the new era, the Xinhua News Agency reported on Friday.

At the same time, prominent GT pundit and the publication's former editor, Hu Xijin, has claimed the Chinese military "has the right" to block Pelosi's plane and any US fighter jet escorts from Taiwan's airspace (which China claims as its own).

This after he has in past days reported that Beijing considers "all options, including military ones" to be on the table:

If US fighter jets escort Pelosi’s plane into Taiwan, it is invasion. The PLA has the right to forcibly dispel Pelosi’s plane and the US fighter jets, including firing warning shots and making tactical movement of obstruction. If ineffective, then shoot them down. https://twitter.com/cnnbrk/status/1552995278059409411

— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) July 29, 2022

China's jingoistic statements echoing from government-affiliated media and commentators has gotten considerable attention of late from American observers as the West speculates on what kind of response Beijing is readying in the scenario that Pelosi actually touches down in Taipei, which could be just days away.

But there is a general feeling that if China does respond aggressively - beyond something like just the usual war drills (snap exercises are occurring now in the South China Sea) - there's little that Washington can do about it, given it would involve simultaneously "confronting" superpowers on two major fronts, considering the spiraling Ukraine situation.


Update(10:22ET): With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi departing for a tour of Asia on Friday - to include Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore - The Washington Post's Josh Rogin says a Taiwan stopover is "expected to happen" during the "early part" of the trip.

Could Pelosi show up in Taipei as soon as Sunday, Monday or Tuesday? Meanwhile, Chinese state media has been busy threatening that "military options" are on the table in response.

And for one of the latest posts from state-run English language Global Times...


As AntiWar.com's Dave DeCamp wrote: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is leading a congressional delegation to Asia that is set to depart on Friday, but it’s still not clear if she will make a stop in Taiwan.

Sources told NBC News that the delegation will stop in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore. Taiwan is listed on the itinerary as "tentative."



Illustrated: Yahoo News/Getty Images

So far, Pelosi and her advisers have declined to confirm that she is planning to visit Taiwan. But on Wednesday, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) said that Pelosi invited him to join her in Taiwan, signaling that she still plans to go despite the risk of sparking a major crisis across the Taiwan Strait.

McCaul declined the invitation, and it’s not clear who will be part of Pelosi’s delegation. She also invited Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Mark Takano (D-CA), but they haven’t commented on the trip.

Beijing has issued strong warnings over Pelosi’s plans to visit Taiwan, but the potential trip has gained strong bipartisan support from lawmakers in Congress as both Republicans and Democrats are urging her to go.

Biden administration officials have said China will view the trip as a purposeful provocation but maintain that it’s her decision whether or not to visit the island.

During a Q&A following Thursday's Biden-Xi phone call, a senior administration official reiterated, "I’d note that, you know, no trip has been announced. And as we’ve said previously, it’s her decision."

Chinese military analysts have warned that Pelosi visiting Taiwan could spark a conflict between the US and China. Pelosi will be the first house speaker to make the trip since Newt Gingrich did in 1997, but the analysts warn China’s response could be stronger since its military is much stronger today.

Chinese state pundits and media are meanwhile warning that "all options, including military ones" are currently on the table.

Looks like a big bang coming in August 2022.

big bang

1. any sudden forceful beginning or radical change

The news report gives a double message because it reports that Pelosi is going against the advice of the Biden administration that she supposedly/reportedly supports and works with.

Intel (insider patriot) reporting says Pelosi has flipped and is no longer working with the Biden administration. What is going on or is going to happen as a result of her visit remains unclear.

Taiwan broadcaster: Pelosi to arrive on island Tuesday night

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will reportedly visit Taiwan on Tuesday during her tour of Asia, despite warnings from the Biden administration and threats from China.

Pelosi’s congressional delegation tour kicked off Monday in Singapore, and her office has confirmed Malaysia, South Korea and Japan are also on the schedule.

Though Pelosi did not include Taiwan in her public plans, Taiwanese media are now reporting that she will touch down in Taipei on Tuesday night.

The Taiwanese broadcaster TVBS reported Pelosi may meet with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Reports are also surfacing that the U.S. is moving ships and planes closer to the island, perhaps in preparation for the Speaker’s trip.

CNN also confirmed Pelosi’s plans, with a Taiwanese official telling the outlet the speaker would stay in the country overnight.