The Chinese regime is at risk of “being too closely aligned” with Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, a UK intelligence chief said on Thursday.
In a rare public address during a visit to Australia, Sir Jeremy Fleming, the head of Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency, said China will not be “well served” by a close alliance with a regime that “wilfully and illegally” ignores all global rules and norms.
His intervention comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week directly confronted President Xi Jinping over Beijing’s stance on the conflict in Ukraine in what was described as a “frank and candid” discussion.
Speaking at the Australian National University in Canberra, Fleming said Russia “has made a strategic choice to align with China as China has become more powerful and in direct opposition to the United States.”
“In the current crisis, Russia sees China as a supplier of weapons, as a provider of technology, a market for its hydrocarbons, and as a means to circumvent sanctions,” he said.
Fleming said Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s calculus is “more nuanced.”
“He’s not publicly condemned the invasion, presumably calculating that it helps him oppose the U.S. And, with an eye on re-taking Taiwan, China doesn’t want to do anything which may constrain its ability to move in the future.”
At the same time, Beijing is taking the opportunity to purchase cheap Russian hydrocarbons while Moscow provides additional impetus and support to its digital markets and technology plans.
But Fleming suggested Russia understands the risks of an overly close relationship with China. “Russia understands that long term, China will become increasingly strong militarily and economically. Some of their interests conflict—Russia could be squeezed out of the equation.”
On the conflict in Ukraine, Fleming said Russian President Vladimir Putin had “massively misjudged the situation.”
He said: “It’s clear he misjudged the resistance of the Ukrainian people. He underestimated the strength of the coalition his actions would galvanise. He underplayed the economic consequences of the sanctions regime. He overestimated the abilities of his military to secure a rapid victory.”
The intelligence chief said there have been reports of “Russian soldiers—short of weapons and morale—refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment, and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft.”
“And even though we believe Putin’s advisers are afraid to tell him the truth, what’s going on and the extent of these misjudgements must be crystal clear to the regime,” he said.
PA Media contributed to this report.