The UK must work to stop China and Russia using the pandemic to their global advantage, MPs have warned.
The Commons Defence Committee said an ongoing review of foreign and security policy must prioritise looking at the capabilities of “hostile states”.
It called for a “robust assessment” of the threat Moscow and Beijing pose to UK interests at home and abroad.
Meanwhile, the government has brought in new powers for police to detain people they suspect of espionage.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said this would send a “clear message” of “zero tolerance” to anyone attempting to disrupt UK interests,
- Russian ambassador rejects vaccine hacking claims
- UK ‘badly underestimated’ Russian threat
- The ‘new normal’ as cyber-spies navigate pandemic
Downing Street has promised its “integrated review” of foreign, defence, security and international development policy – the first for five years – will be the most far-reaching since the Cold War.
But the cross-party committee, headed by Conservative ex-minister Tobias Ellwood, said it was “concerned that the gap between this expectation and reality is widening”.
Its report urged the government to welcome “challenge” from the armed forces, international allies, industry, Parliament and the public.
Warning against a “behind-closed-doors” approach, the committee also called for clarity over which ministers would chair key meetings if Boris Johnson was not attending and what input special advisers, including the PM’s chief aide Dominic Cummings, would have.
The committee said it had been told by the UK’s deputy national security adviser Alex Ellis that coronavirus was expected to lead to “intensified geo-political competition”.
“Within this context, it is important to consider how hostile foreign states may utilise the pandemic to their advantage,” it added.
The UK, Russia and China are all at the forefront of global efforts to produce a vaccine, with Russia saying on Tuesday that it had given regulatory approval to one after less than two months of testing on humans.
The UK has accused Russia of attempting to steal UK scientists’ vaccine research, a claim denied by Moscow.
The committee said it had heard that both Russia and China – with which the UK is at loggerheads over cyber-espionage and Hong Kong – were “employing disruption as a major tool”.
It said the UK must assess the “full range” of economic and diplomatic activities in which the countries were involved.
There has been speculation that the review could lead to a further cut in the size of the armed forces, but the committee said decisions should be driven by strategy rather than money.
From Thursday, the Home Office is giving specially trained police the power to stop, question and detain individuals travelling through UK ports who are suspected of working for hostile states.
Ms Patel said the threat was “growing and ever-changing”, and promised new laws to “stay ahead”.