By Michael Holden and James Pearson

 – China poses a genuine and increasing cyber risk to the United Kingdom, the head of British spy agency GCHQ said on Tuesday, adding that while Russia and Iran represented an immediate threat, Beijing was an epoch-defining challenge.

In the U.S. and across Europe there has been increasing anxiety about China’s alleged cyber and espionage activity, with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government at the forefront of those accusations which Beijing has repeatedly denied.

On Monday, Sunak said Britain was facing a threat from “an axis of authoritarian states like Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China”, and those warnings were echoed by GCHQ’s Anne Keast-Butler.

“As the prime minister said yesterday, the next few years will be some of the most dangerous and transformational,” she told a security conference in Birmingham, central England.

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In her first major public speech since being appointed director of the intelligence communications agency last year, Keast-Butler said the threat from Russia was acute and globally pervasive, with concern about growing links between the Russian intelligence services and proxy groups.

Iran remained aggressive in cyberspace, and groups associated with Tehran have been implicated in attacks against victims in many countries.

But she said China was her agency’s top priority.

“In cyberspace, we believe that the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) irresponsible actions weaken the security of the internet for all,” she said.

Keast-Butler’s remarks echo similar comments by the heads of Britain’s two other spy agencies, known as MI5 and MI6, and from her counterparts in the United States.

U.S. National Cyber Director Harry Koker told the conference Chinese military hackers were circumventing U.S. defences in cyberspace and targeting U.S. interests at an “unprecedented scale”.

“In a crisis or conflict scenario, China could use their pre-positioned cyber capabilities to wreak havoc in civilian infrastructure and deter U.S. military action,” he said.

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In a speech last month, Sunak said Chinese state-affiliated actors had conducted “malicious cyber campaigns” against British lawmakers.

He said last week a “malign actor”, which British media said was China, citing government sources, had probably compromised the payments system used by the British armed forces, accusations Beijing described as absurd.

On Monday, three men appeared in court accused of assisting Hong Kong’s foreign intelligence service in Britain, while two others, including a former parliamentary researcher, will go on trial next year charged with spying for China.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a press conference on Tuesday that Britain had repeatedly hyped up allegations about Chinese spies and cyber attacks.

(Reporting by Michael Holden and James Pearson; Editing by Sarah Young, Sachin Ravikumar, William Maclean)


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