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The Chinese flag. (File photo: AFP/NICOLAS ASFOURI)

(Updated: )

LONDON: The West must urgently act to ensure that China does not dominate the key technologies of the 21st century or the communist state could effectively grab control of the world’s global “operating system”, Britain’s top cyber spy said.

Britain’s spies believe that China could within decades dominate all of the key emerging technologies of this century, particularly artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and genetics.

In an unusually blunt speech on Friday (Apr 23), GCHQ Director Jeremy Fleming said that the West faces a moment of reckoning unless it takes profound action to ensure technologies that define its prosperity are not controlled by competitors such as China or Russia.

“Significant technology leadership is moving East,” Fleming said in a speech to Imperial College. “The concern is that China’s size and technological weight means that it has the potential to control the global operating system.”

“We are now facing a moment of reckoning.”

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Fleming outlined a future over which world powers are competing to shape by developing the best technology, buying the best brains and dominating the global standards that will govern the technologies of the future.

GCHQ, which gathers communications from around the world to identify and disrupt threats to Britain, has a close relationship with the US National Security Agency as well as with the eavesdropping agencies of Australia, Canada and New Zealand in a consortium called “Five Eyes”.

Fleming said that if the United Kingdom wished to remain a global cyber power then it would have to develop “sovereign technologies” in areas such as quantum, including cryptographic technologies, to protect sensitive information and capabilities.

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He also called for better fostering of the right market conditions to enable innovation, and create a diversity of supply in a broader set of technologies.

Fleming said China was “bringing all elements of state power to control, influence design and dominate markets” while also trying to dominate debates about global standards.

He said digital currencies held significant promise to revolutionise the finance sector.

“But designed without liberal values, they could be used to enable significant intrusions into the lives of citizens and companies in those countries, and those they do business with globally,” Fleming said.

Russia, he said, remained the biggest immediate threat to the West but that China’s long-term dominance of technology posed a much bigger problem.

“Russia is affecting the weather, whilst China is shaping the climate,” he said, cautioning that Britain’s historic strength in cyber did not automatically mean that it would keep its position.

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