GP Insights # 488, 21 March 2021
On 16 March, the government released an Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy. The document is seen as the UK's biggest strategic shake-up since the Cold War era. The highlights of the document include: threats facing the UK, a tilt toward the Indo-Pacific, increasing the nuclear stockpile, and plans to send troops across longer distances for more extended periods. There is a greater emphasis on science and technology, especially in the aftermath of the COVID crisis. This is the first document that shows the UK's step forward outside of the EU.
On 15 March, news reports revealed that Trident plans to massively expand its nuclear weapons arsenal from 180 to 260 warheads.
What is the background?
First, the emphasis on trade and S&T. Emphasizing trade and making it central in the review is a conceptual shift. Trade is seen as a tool playing a vital role in fulfilling the foreign policy agenda alongside development. The report also highlights science, technology, and digital as main areas of focus and promises bold new investments into research and development.
Second, the Indo- Pacific focus. There are obvious reasons for the UK to look away from their immediate neighbourhood after the Brexit. There is a strong focus on the Indo-Pacific in the review, which is an area of interest for the new Biden administration as well. The tilt would be beyond the defence and security context, which would include the increasing involvement of the UK in trade through the CPTPP. They also hope to support climate change action, promote British values, reinvigorate relationships with India, and pursue their request for partner status at ASEAN. This would essentially broaden their presence across the world.
Third, defining terrorism, Russia, and China as the main threats. The report recommends a new Counter-Terrorism Operations Centre to bring together police and spies in a "state-of-the-art facility". It names the threat of nuclear attack by a terrorist/ non-state imminent by 2030 as a pretext to increasing the nuclear stockpile. Besides, the report names Russia as a strategic rival and looks at China's growth as a systemic challenge.
Fourth, military spending. The main focus of defence spending is the new frontiers of space and cyber-warfare. There is an announcement of a £24 billion increase in defence spending. Significant cuts in troops, weaponry, and fighting vehicles have been announced, some of which may be replaced by drones. However, for security and deterrence from terrorists, the troops would train, exercise, and operate alongside allies and partners across all priority regions and build the capacity to fight in faraway places and for longer periods.
What does it mean?
The document tries to portray a strategy with a careful blend of trade, defence, security, and diplomacy. There has been an immediate backlash to some of the plans that have been put forth. However, it seems like the UK is trying to tackle structural challenges while also hoping to retain a leadership status in the world. Though the long-term strategy caution against China, the UK's immediate challenge would be to remain balanced to ensure the trade relations do not clash with the security interests. The report places the UK's strategy on a promising pedestal, leaving behind the popular narrative of being a retreating power.