Why UK needs a US-style Foreign Agents Act – Professor Azeem Ibrahim

A Foreign Agents Act would mean politicians, journalists and anyone with a public voice would need to reveal where they get their money from, whether it is China, Russia, Brussels, Exxon Mobil, Google or Facebook, writes Professor Azeem Ibrahim.

The UK has decided to ban technology made by Chinese telecom giant Huawei from its 5G network over security concerns (Picture: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images)
The UK has decided to ban technology made by Chinese telecom giant Huawei from its 5G network over security concerns (Picture: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images)

One revelation in the Huawei saga in Britain is that a number of leading political and diplomatic figures have been lobbying to keep using Huawei equipment in the UK’s 5G deployment while being on the payroll of Beijing.

To be clear, they were not spies. Leading British establishment figures were not passing on information or advising the Communist government of China on how to manipulate or control the UK. But they were members of an elite club whose purpose was to lobby UK governments to favour good relations with China.

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Nor is the Huawei aspect of this story any more secretive or insidious than normal lobbying. Huawei is one of China’s best known companies and it currently stands as a global leader in 5G technology.

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The UK has banned Huawei from its 5G network - here’s what that means

If you were to lobby the government to favour good relations with Beijing, you would not need to make any nefarious or untrue claims. You only need to insist that the business case for using Huawei equipment in the UK’s 5G rollout is undeniable, and make the argument that the government need not fret too much about any hypothetical security implications this may carry.

Except that the security implications of developing a reliance on equipment from a hostile power for your most critical communication infrastructure are not hypothetical – as the government acknowledged when recently announcing that Huawei equipment must be removed from the critical parts of the UK network by 2027.

So why is it that leading figures of the British establishment can appear on television and argue in favour of using Huawei equipment for the UK’s 5G rollout emphasising the business case and minimising the very real security and sovereignty implications, without it being public knowledge that they are paid by Beijing to lobby for “good relations between China and the UK”?

Yes, maintaining good relations with China, and developing business ties, is not a bad thing. What is a bad thing is allowing our country to become dependent on Chinese technology which we know we cannot and should not trust.

When luminaries of the British establishment show up on the television and tell us that we should focus on pleasing China and acquiescing their desires to gain control over our critical infrastructure in order to “maintain friendly relations”, we must know what their incentives are, or what biases they might have acquired in the time they have enjoyed being on the payroll of a potentially hostile power.

The way to do this is to adopt a Foreign Agents Act, in the vein of the one they have in the United States, where anyone with a public voice, politicians, journalists, academics and so on, needs to advertise publicly where they get money from, so that we can discern their interests and biases. We need to know if Lord So-and-So has an appointment paid for by China, or Russia, or Brussels, or indeed Exxon Mobil or Google or Facebook. Without such an act in place, we are condoning corruption and inviting foreign influence in our democratic politics.

Influence campaigns, information warfare and propaganda, as well as cyber are the most active frontiers in today’s world, and there is a fully fledged war going on out there in these realms. To not have basic defences like a Foreign Agents Act against these kinds of power, when we already know we are under constant attack in these areas is, in the best case scenario, negligent.

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Yes, Conservative and Labour Lords, or MPs, or special advisers, or what have you, may end up inconvenienced and may well have to re-organise some business dealings. But we have been promised, by the very party currently in government, by the very man who is prime minister, that Britain will take back control and assert sovereignty over our own affairs.

So why are we allowing establishment luminaries to sell that control and sovereignty to foreign powers that are much more hostile than Brussels ever was, or ever will be? And for such paltry sums of money, as well!

Azeem Ibrahim is executive chairman of The Scotland Institute and a professor at the US Army War College

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