16 March 2021

Johnson acknowledges China challenge as he sets out foreign policy plan

16 March 2021

China will pose a “great challenge” for the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged as he set out the findings of a major review of foreign policy.

The strategy, which includes a plan to increase the UK’s nuclear stockpile, will see post-Brexit Britain tilt towards the Indo-Pacific region as the world’s “geopolitical and economic centre of gravity” moves east.

But closer to home, Russia still remains the “most acute threat to our security”, the document said.

The Prime Minister said Brexit marked a “new chapter in our history” and the UK was now “open to the world, free to tread our own path” as the Integrated Review Of Security, Defence Development And Foreign Policy was published.

The strategy acknowledges the risks posed by increased competition between states – including a more assertive China – along with terrorism, organised crime, climate change and the “realistic possibility” of another pandemic.

The increased focus on the Indo-Pacific region is an acknowledgement of Chinese influence, as well as the importance of countries including India and Japan.

The shift will be underlined by the deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group to the region on its maiden operational mission later this year and a visit by Mr Johnson to India in April.

Mr Johnson has been under pressure from Tory backbenchers to take a tougher line with Beijing, but the language in the review highlights the need for continued cooperation while “improving our ability to respond to the systemic challenge that it poses to our security, prosperity and values”.

In a Commons statement Mr Johnson insisted the UK has led international condemnation of China’s “mass detention” of Uighur people in Xinjiang and its actions in Hong Kong.

“There is no question China will pose a great challenge for an open society such as ours,” Mr Johnson said.

“But we will also work with China where that is consistent with our values and interests, including building a stronger and positive economic relationship and in addressing climate change.”

The review:

– Sets out the UK’s aim to be a “science and tech superpower” by 2030, with the ability to “monitor, protect and defend our interests” in space and ensuring cutting-edge defensive and offensive cyber capabilities.

– Commits to return to spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid “when the fiscal situation allows”.

– States that tackling climate change and biodiversity loss is the Government’s “number one international priority” in 2021 and beyond.

The review warns of a “deteriorating security environment” in the world.

The proliferation of chemical and nuclear weapons, advanced conventional weapons and “novel military technologies” will “increase the risk and intensity of conflict”.

It is “likely” that a terrorist group will launch a successful chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) attack by 2030, the report said.

In a sign that defence spending will shift away from traditional, and expensive, military hardware, the report noted “the advantages offered by high-tech capabilities may be eroded by affordable, easily-available, low-tech threats such as drones and improvised explosive devices”.

In response to the “evolving security environment”, the Government will lift a cap on the number of nuclear warheads in the UK arsenal.

By the mid-2020s there had been a commitment that no more than 180 warheads would be held but the stockpile could now increase to 260.

A policy of “deliberate ambiguity” will mean the public will not be given figures for the operational stockpile or how many missiles and warheads are deployed.

The review includes the creation of a new state-of-the-art counter-terrorism operations centre to streamline the response of police and the intelligence agencies in the event of an attack.

There will also be a new “situation centre” in the Cabinet Office similar to the White House situation room where former president Barack Obama was able to watch the US special forces’ operation to kill Osama bin Laden in real time.

The publication comes after the Prime Minister announced in November a £16.5 billion increase in defence spending over the next four years, focusing on the future battlefields of space and cyber.

However, military chiefs have made clear the investment in new technologies will mean cuts to some “industrial age” capabilities, to be set out in a further paper by the Ministry of Defence next week.

The Army is expected to be the biggest loser, with troop numbers expected to be slashed by more than 10,000, while its fleet of Challenger 2 main battle tanks is expected to be reduced by a third and the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle retired altogether.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer claimed there was a “very real risk that our armed forces will be stripped back even further”, extending an “era of retreat” for the UK.

He said there had been “an inconsistent policy” on China under the Tories, with successive administrations “turning a blind eye to human rights abuses while inviting China to help build our infrastructure”.

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox