Nigel Inkster said MI6 “clearly (has).. difficulties”, while China has “industrial-scale cyber espionage operations directed against advanced Western countries”.
And he pointed to the Cameron government’s attempts to develop friendlier relations with China.
“In 2015, the British government was talking about a ‘golden era’ of UK-China relations. Given that situation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the security service isn’t where it might be,” he told the i newspaper.
In a bid to develop close economic ties with the Asian superpower, Lord Cameron even hosted a state visit for President Xi Jinping in 2015.
The Sunak government has been clear it is taking a tougher stance with China. In November the prime minister said Lord Cameron’s return as foreign secretary did not mean the return of his “golden era” approach.
MI6 “clearly does have difficulties, in terms of language expertise and collective general historical and cultural awareness” when it comes to China, he said.
He added: “We’re seeing a significant increase in human intelligence collection operations, with the Chinese services essentially seeming to be operating under no political constraints – incentivised to take risks and to do whatever it takes to get the intelligence that is required.”
Sir Richard Moore, the head of MI6, told Politico in July that the intelligence agency now has more resources devoted to China than any other mission.
This “reflects … the crucial need to understand both the intent and capability of the Chinese government”, he said.
Mr Inkster warned that may not be enough to counter Beijing’s capabilities, however.
“I know that there is a big effort underway to remedy those deficiencies,” he said. “A lot of resources are now being put into getting the UK intelligence community in a better state… but it does take a certain amount of time.”
But he welcomed the new National Security Act, which he said would make it easier to prosecute Chinese spies, replacing “an Official Secrets Act that was derived from the First World War”.