Britain described China as an “epoch defining challenge” to the international order in an update of its foreign and defence policy that identified the threat posed by Russia and the outcome of the Ukraine war as the biggest immediate priority.
In a refresh of its so-called integrated review the government warned of “the intensification of systemic competition”, illustrated by Moscow’s deepening ties with Beijing and Tehran, which had become the “main driver of the deteriorating” international security environment.
First released in 2021, the policy document was updated to reflect Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, accompanied by Moscow’s weaponisation of energy and food supplies, and “China’s more aggressive stance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait”, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wrote in a forward to the report, released on Monday.
The 60-page document coincided with Sunak’s trip to San Diego to meet US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, at a summit to discuss the next steps under Aukus, the trilateral defence pact aimed at countering China. These will include the UK giving Australia access to its programme to build the next generation of nuclear powered attack submarines.
In the review, Sunak vowed to spend an extra £5bn on defence over the next two years, including £3bn on the UK’s nuclear deterrent and submarine programme, and £2bn to replenish weapons stockpiles depleted by supplying arms to Ukraine.
He also set as “an aspiration” a target of spending 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product on defence, up from 2 per cent.
“The fact that the military got a bit more money is good news,” said Sir Richard Barrons, former head of the British armed forces. “Less good is Sunak has not said when the increase in defence spending will happen. I worry about the UK’s standing in Nato given that allies such as France, Germany and Poland are massively ramping up their defence spending.”
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, France, which alongside the UK is western Europe’s main military power, announced it would increase its defence budget by more than a third. Germany has outlined plans for a €100bn fund to transform its armed forces. Meanwhile, Poland aims to increase its military budget to almost 4 per cent of GDP this year.
Bronwen Maddox, director of think-tank Chatham House, said: “The big gap in this review is money. Yes, we’ve got the great symbolism of the Aukus announcement, but the question is whether the UK has the resources to do it.”
Analysts said one big difference between Sunak’s policy refresh and the 2021 integrated review led by Boris Johnson when he was prime minister, was a greater emphasis on the importance of Britain’s European allies.
The document described the defence relationship with France as “particularly strong”. Brexit had damaged previously close military ties but Sunak has moved to patch up the wider Anglo-French relations and last week visited Paris for the first UK-France summit in five years.
Another difference, analysts said, was a recognition of the need to deepen British relationships with middle-sized powers that have been courted by China but without forcing them to take sides and “make zero sum choices”.
“The fact that China managed to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran together shows Beijing’s continued rising power,” said Edward Stringer, a former senior British air force officer and director-general of the Defence Academy, referring to the recent detente brokered between the two countries. “Not expecting the global south to make choices between us or China and Russia is key,” he added.
A third difference lay in a greater emphasis on domestic economic security, including the creation of a new unit attached to Britain’s MI5 domestic intelligence service to help the private sector deal with industrial espionage and potential terrorist threats.
Ministers will also set up a national resilience unit within the National Security Council to examine issues such as how the UK’s supplies of semiconductors might be disrupted by a catastrophic shock such as an invasion of Taiwan by China.
“It is clear that economic activity will define conflict as much as military weapons have defined conflict in the past,” said Oliver Dowden, the minister in charge of the Cabinet Office.
One question that the review left hanging, however, is how the British armed forces will be configured to meet what the review called “a more contested and volatile world”. Further details are expected in a defence command paper in June.
Despite a £24bn increase in defence spending spread over four years that was finalised in 2020, Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, has repeatedly warned that the British army has been “hollowed out” by decades of spending cuts. Such is the state of the army that many analysts fear the UK would struggle to deploy and sustain a division if the need arose.
“The integrated review could have addressed the hollowing out issue without waiting for the defence command paper. It was a moment when we could also have told our allies what we intend to do about that,” said Ed Arnold, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London. “It was a bit of a missed opportunity.”
Additional reporting by Robert Wright