London (Brussels Morning) The UK has announced a shift in its foreign policy agenda following its exit from the EU, placing more emphasis on science, technology and cyber in tackling threats, increasing its presence in the Indo-Pacific region and friendlier relations with China. The government also downplayed poverty reduction and announced an increase to its upper limit on nuclear warheads.
After publication of Global Britain in a competitive age —The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, Prime Minister Boris Johnson read a statement in the Houses of Parliament, followed by a debate Tuesday.
The new strategic framework, outlined in the review, places science and technology, development in new frontiers, such as cyber and space and other cutting-edge technologies to be used in the armed forces as priorities while emphasising new deployments in the Indo-Pacific region, in response to what it calls an increasingly multi-polar world.
Following the merger between the UK’s Department for International Development with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the new foreign policy concept articulates soft and hard power dimensions, outlined in its 2018 National Security Capability Review.
Noting that extreme poverty was decreasing worldwide, the government said girls’ education would be a key development focus.
Continuity and change
The new concept also emphasises a number of continuities, including an earmarked 2% or more of gross domestic product on defence spending, the commitment to the Special Relationship with the US, and engagement in Euro-Atlantic collective security through NATO. While acknowledging that departure from the EU marks a key change in foreign and security policy, the new concept articulates intent for coordination in areas of shared interest.
“As a European nation, we will enjoy constructive and productive relationships with our neighbours in the European Union, based on mutual respect for sovereignty and the UK’s freedom to do things differently, economically and politically, where that suits our interests”, read the report, while also acknowledging it sought to “exploit the freedom that comes with increased independence, such as the ability to forge new free trade deals.”
“It still isn’t entirely clear how that security relationship is going to evolve”, says Dr. David Jordan from the Defense Studies Department at Kings College London.
Inevitably, the UK’s input to European security will change in some areas, says Jordan but participation in NATO and the defence relationship between the UK and France also means significant continuity.
“The UK’s added value to the continent’s defence sector has been aerospace and defence and counter-terrorism intelligence”, says Brussels Morning’s security analyst Angelos Kaskanis, speaking about the implications to the defence sector’s commercial market in Europe.
“That is why I believe that there will be a European approach to this sector with consortia looking for cooperation in the field”, he adds.
British companies are unlikely to exclude Europeans in a market they dominate, says Kaskanis, while the European Defence Agency as well has emphasised a need to understand the “civil roots” of several defence technologies in its Action Plan on synergies between civil, defence and space industries and is redirecting funds toward research and development that will benefit the UK in the long term.
A “tilt” toward the Indo-Pacific echoes US Secretary of State Clinton’s “pivot to the Pacific” and is consistent with the commitment of a Special Relationship. It is the highlight of the review, but also articulates pragmatism around future Sino relations that may not be entirely aligned with Washington’s perspectives.
That tilt is not solely based on defence and security but encompasses Britain’s pursuit for further trade deals outside of the EU with formal application to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership earlier this year.
Jordan argues it is more of a “tilt back” to the Indo-Pacific for the UK, as that is where commerce and trade are heading in the near and medium terms.
“The UK has long-standing interests in the Indo-Pacific, but inevitably, the level of engagement has varied over time, particularly since the ‘East of Suez’ withdrawal of significant elements of ‘hard power’ from the region in the 1960s and 1970s”, he told Brussels Morning.
“This ’tilt’ represents a recognition… that the region is going to become more important in terms of international affairs, particularly trade, and thus a greater focus here is, in the eyes of the government, a practical and sensible step to take”, he continued.
While some argue that the review is not a huge shift in ambition for the UK, members of the opposition and even some in Conservative Party ranks took issue with the softened approach to China, the planned increase in nuclear warheads — from no more than 180 (reduced from an upper limit of 225 in 2010) to not more than 260 warheads — while others questioned why there was still no solid date for resuming a commitment of 0.7% of gross national income for overseas aid, suspended during the pandemic, followed by substantial cuts to conflict-ridden countries, such as Syria and Yemen.
“Increasing the size of the UK’s nuclear stockpile while arguing that we can’t afford to meet our promises to the world’s poorest shows the Government has got its priorities badly wrong. It is exactly the wrong way to project Global Britain on the world stage”, said Danny Sriskandarajah, the chief executive of Oxfam GB.
“The goals of promoting human rights, equality and fairness set out in the Review are admirable. But pouring billions into military hardware while cutting food, medicines and clean water for people on the brink of famine is about as unfair and unequal as it is possible to imagine.
“I urge the Prime Minister to think again, do the right thing and reverse the aid cuts. British leadership in the fight against global poverty is in the national interest, it increases our international standing and is the right thing to do”, he continued, in response to the review.
Jordan notes, however, that the UK is still not leaping France, which has an estimated 280-290 warheads.
“Were the government suggesting a return to air delivered nuclear weapons as a complement to SSBN-delivered warheads, then this would be a more significant issue which would, arguably, alter the status quo as it would add an extra delivery method to the UK’s nuclear arsenal”, he says.
The impact of the review will come out over the following months as more detail is unveiled, with defence secretary Ben Wallace addressing the lower chamber next week.