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What is the biggest challenge facing the UK in 2024?

2023 was a year fraught with geopolitical instability. This shows no sign of abating in 2024. Russia’s war against Ukraine continues, as do repeated Chinese efforts to undermine international law in the maritime domain. Iran-backed Houthis have disrupted container shipping in the Red Sea, to which His Majesty’s (HM) Government is threatening the use of force. Technological developments look set to accelerate beyond the nation’s means to regulate them adequately, opening the door for abuse. Climate change continues. Compounding these challenges, of which there are many more, is that 2024 will be the largest election year perhaps ever seen. But which challenges are most pressing for the United Kingdom (UK)? Where should HM Government focus be in 2024? We asked twelve experts in the first Big Ask of the new year.

Evie Aspinall, British Foreign Policy Group

2024 will be a year of elections. For the UK’s global position, no election is more important than the United States (US) election, perhaps not even the UK’s own election, where, with the exception of UK-European Union (EU) relations, relatively little differentiates the two main parties on foreign policy.

In contrast, as the Democrats and Republicans increasingly diverge on key foreign policy issues – not least dealing with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and how much support to give Ukraine – it is clear that the American election will have a significant impact on the US’ global orientation. And regardless of who wins, with the US focused on domestic politics, there is a danger its attention on international issues wanes. That is concerning not just for the UK’s ability to cooperate with its most powerful global ally, but also because strategic rivals may look to take advantage of a distracted US. 

This could have significant consequences for the security of Taiwan and Ukraine, among others. In 2024 there will therefore be an increased need for the UK and its other allies and partners to step up and provide leadership where it is needed. But this is no easy task, especially when many others, including Britain, will be preoccupied with their own elections.

Hillary Briffa, King’s College London and Council on Geostrategy

The greatest challenges facing the UK in 2024 are the ballots, the bombs, the bills, and biodiversity. 

Across the world, over four billion citizens will be voting in elections in over 70 countries – in the US, Russia, India, Taiwan, those of the EU, and more – and the collective outcomes will have significant implications for global geopolitics. As Carl von Clausewitz taught us: ‘the political view is the object, War is the means’. The elections will spur renewed or reduced support for Ukraine and will affect political support for Israel or Palestine, but they will also have implications for the defence of human rights and civil liberties more broadly as populist candidates step up to the polls. 

The UK will need to navigate this uncertain and changing international landscape while still in the throes of its own winter of discontent, marked by some of the longest-running strikes in history, a cost of living crisis, inflation, and reports of a crisis of democracy, just as its own election looms over the horizon. However, disproportionate focus on short-term elections risks overlooking the bigger picture; it is imperative that biodiversity and climate emergencies remain high on candidates’ electoral agendas.

Today, no problem exists in isolation and Britain and international leaders will require a systems-thinking mindset to approach such a multitude of intersecting challenges. In 2024, they must rise to the challenge.

William Freer, Council on Geostrategy

Beijing’s increasing aggression in the Indo-Pacific; fresh hostilities in the Middle East, including attempts by the Houthis to cut off shipping in the Red Sea; and the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine present serious challenges for the UK. In addition, new challenges will continue to emerge, such as Venezuela’s growing aggression towards Guyana, or the potential for conflict in Africa fuelled by climate change.

Evaluating these threats, the likelihood that new ones will emerge, and what Britain can/should do about them, will be a continuous problem for HM Government. But by far the most serious challenge for 2024 will be solving the long-standing issue of under-investment and low recruitment levels in the British Armed Forces – the primary means to meet these threats, whatever they may be. 

Soft power has its role to play in managing crises, but when negotiation fails or proves impossible, it is only hard power which can protect national security. Britain spends 2.1% of gross domestic product on defence currently – this is simply not enough to face growing instability. The National Audit Office estimates there is an almost £17 billion shortfall on the current equipment plan to 2032. Given the global geopolitical situation, the UK should be looking to improve its defence capabilities and spending and recruitment efforts should be increased to fix the expected shortfalls – at a minimum – and then go on to expand capabilities. 

Increasing investment in defence will face tough competition from other spending priorities. But, as the war against Ukraine and other events have shown, the costs of not investing sufficiently in defence are far greater.

Mark Galeotti, Mayak Intelligence and Council on Geostrategy

Regardless of when there may be a change in government, policy towards Russia is one area where both Labour and the Conservatives essentially agree currently. Obviously, to a large degree this is about ensuring continued support for Kyiv in its fight to retain its sovereignty and regain its occupied territories. This is at once a political, economic and diplomatic test at a time when some of Britain’s allies and partners are looking a little wobbly in their commitments, for all the high-flown rhetoric being deployed.

However, there is more to UK-Russian relations than the war against Ukraine, and we need to be thinking not just of the war, but beyond it – and also beyond Vladimir Putin. 

The UK has a perverse place in Russia’s geopolitical imagination, at once its most subtle and intractable enemy and also the cradle of values and institutions to which many Russians – if not the ageing autocrat in the Kremlin – aspire. There is little scope to build a new relationship with the current regime, even if that were possible. However, it is time to begin to develop a serious strategy to engage with the silent and suffering Russian majority. 

So long as direct person-to-person contact is all but impossible and the embassy in Moscow uniquely constrained, this may have to be through indirect means, from the BBC World Service to online entertainment and educational platforms. But just as the war demands us to formulate a credible answer to the question ‘how does this end?’, so too we need to be thinking about ‘what happens after that?’

Sam Hall, Conservative Environment Network

Climate change will remain one of the biggest challenges facing the UK in 2024. Last year, heat waves in Europe and flooding in the UK pushed up British food prices, drought impeded cargo ships in the Panama Canal, and wildfires caused devastation across North America and Europe. With 2024 also an unusually warm ‘El Niño’ year, the impacts of climate change will likely become yet more visible and harmful to our economic and security interests. While energy prices are expected to dip this spring, household bills are still at historically high levels due to our reliance on gas for heating in particular. The case for reaching Net Zero emissions and transitioning away from fossil fuels remains strong. 

Much of HM Government’s task on climate in 2024 will be policy delivery. Despite some sceptical rhetoric, a lot of new climate policy was announced in 2023 and now must be implemented, from regulatory frameworks for carbon capture and hydrogen, to planning reforms to speed up clean infrastructure and grid capacity. To get on track for Net Zero, however, ministers also need further policies for decarbonising home heating, including tax incentives for home energy efficiency and a plan to move some green levies from electricity to gas bills. 

2024 will be highly consequential for climate policy in the next parliament too, with Labour’s pledge to invest £28 billion a year in green projects set to form the main fiscal dividing line between the two main parties at the election. While the Conservatives are unlikely to match this commitment, they should talk up their positive record from this parliament and set out an alternative plan for leveraging sufficient private investment to achieve Net Zero with more limited public subsidies.

Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House

HM Government’s biggest challenge in the South China Sea in 2024 is to bolster the resolve of those Southeast Asian countries facing strong pressure from the PRC. Five countries – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia – are, in effect, on the frontline of the defence of international law. The PRC is constantly pushing them to give up their rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) but so far, they are holding firm. These five countries are performing a huge service to the international community, holding together the framework of the free and open international order underwritten by rules and norms against Beijing’s attempts to undermine it.

The challenge for British diplomats is to support these five countries because of their special circumstances while also upholding the unity and ‘centrality’ of the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Two of the group’s members, Cambodia and Laos, are much more susceptible to Chinese pressure, and Laos is chairing ASEAN during 2024. There will be a temptation to ‘write off’ ASEAN for the next 12 months but this should be a time for the UK to increase its efforts instead. Britain should also seek to coordinate its private and public diplomacy with its likeminded partners, including the European Union and Japan, while avoiding giving the impression that it and others are ‘ganging up’ on ASEAN. 

There will almost certainly be a General Election in the UK during 2024. If a new government takes office, it will need to reassure its Southeast Asian partners that it will – at least – maintain continuity with the current government’s policies in the region. Early visits by ministers and attendance at ASEAN meetings must be a priority, regardless of events in Ukraine or the Middle East.

Monica Kohli, President, Women’s International Shipping and Trade Association UK

Just this week, an identified merchant vessel was boarded in the Arabian Sea, between Somalia and Yemen. And in December 2023, a group of pirates boarded a vessel registered in Malta in a similar location. This is merely a snapshot of the increase in incidents pertaining to merchant vessels in international waters. Theft is rampant, piracy is a continuous threat, and kidnapping for ransom seems to be on the rise disrupting the world’s busiest shipping routes.

In addition we have seen increased activity in the Red Sea – with the Iranian backed Houthi rebels increasing their belligerence, even launching suicide drones within a couple of miles of US Navy and commercial vessels. Container spot rates are now at their highest levels for over a year.

Major container companies have announced that their vessels will be diverted to around the Cape of Good Hope. Cargo is being delayed, delivery costs for goods skyrocketing, and the increase in extra fuel for the longer voyage is expected to be about US$1 million (£780 million), a price which may be passed onto consumers. The direct impact on our lives cannot be ignored.

The UK, US and others, raised the stakes in the current standoff in the Red Sea by sending a strong statement on 3rd January 2024, calling for an immediate end to the illegal attacks.

Today, more than ever, we need all national and international organisations to protect seafarers. We need to put in place robust enforcement mechanisms to address the safety of vessels, particularly in the Red Sea. Governments need to emphasise the importance of international cooperation. And naval vessels should be deployed to show governments are serious, or willing to use force if required.

Charles Parton, Council on Geostrategy

To have influence and the ability to pursue successfully its interests, a country requires a strong domestic economy and stable domestic politics. That is the biggest challenge facing the UK in 2024. But in foreign relations, the PRC is number one.

That statement needs clarification, because clearly Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and tensions in the Middle East are more immediate and dangerous problems. But they are not a challenge, in the sense that there is agreement on how to act; strategy and policies are clear. The same is not true of the PRC, which in the longer term is a bigger threat to our security, values and data. And there is no time to lose – or rather we must not lose further time, because HM Government has failed to articulate and implement an agreed, coherent strategy since the 2015/16 ‘Golden Error’.

Sadly, an October election means that agreement and coherence will not happen in 2024. But assuming that the new government has a clearer perspective on the PRC, 2025 might be a new start. And within the PRC challenge/threat, the most important area is ensuring that we better protect our science and technology, and that we avoid dependencies on Chinese science and technology. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a clear strategy for exploiting both.

And some advice for a new government: stop moving ministers and top officials dealing with the PRC every few months.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

The greatest challenge to the UK in 2024 comes not from without but from within. The crises are building up, and the potential for a multi-front ‘pluricrisis’ – similar to the 1930s – is drawing nearer. Without more resources, not least from Europe, there is a real risk that Ukraine will suffer severe setbacks to Russia this year. From the Red Sea to the Levant, Iranian-backed proxies are on the offensive, with the Houthis effectively denying access to the Red Sea – Britain’s premier shipping route. And geopolitics bubbles in the South China Sea, where the PRC ascends after a massive and sustained naval build-up.

Despite the Integrated Review and its refresh, post-Cold War geopolitical fantasies continue to hold sway. The yearning for a better world has not subsided. Some hope, almost pathetically, that ‘normality’ will soon return. The notion that today’s Britons must, uniquely, atone for the sins of their ancestors is gaining traction, and soft power is still seen as preferable to hard. In the 1990s, these ideas were relatively harmless. In 2024, they are perverse.

For Britain to succeed and prosper in the 2020s, HM Government should embrace geopolitics. This requires a very different mindset from the one we are accustomed to. We need to think less about ‘domesticating’ international relations and more about how to push back against determined authoritarian opposition. Old mantras that ‘improved relations’ with other countries are always preferable should be questioned with rigour; to deter effectively, we ought to be more prepared to make examples of our rivals. In this 10th anniversary year of NATO’s defence spending commitments, we may also need to become firmer with some of our friends. Securing strategic advantage should be prioritised across every level of government, but greater attention should be given to naval rearmament and providing the diplomatic service with what it needs to support British interests.

None of this will come easy. But without an intellectual transition, geopolitical competition will only get worse. In 2022, we got the first glimpse of the actual consequences of failure. The Ukrainians pay the price.

Emma Salisbury, Council on Geostrategy

The challenges facing the UK in 2024 are centred around the spectre of increasing international instability due to ongoing and looming conflicts. Maintaining and strengthening the security of Britain will be paramount for the nation to weather the storms which are likely to hit over the coming year.

The foundation of British security is our armed forces, and the best way to ensure their ability to adapt and respond to these challenges is to ensure that they have what they need. The government should continue and deepen its efforts to procure the best available kit, invest in British manufacturing and research and development, and integrate emerging technological solutions into operations. This is particularly vital for the Royal Navy as the service most likely to be called upon when tackling global challenges – as we have seen with recent deployments in the Red Sea and Guyana, to name but two.

As 2024 is an election year, politicians should remember that the defence of the nation is not a party-political matter. Manifestos should include not only strong commitments to our armed forces, but also a recognition that long-term cross-party planning for national security should not be sacrificed upon the altar of electoral combat.

Gray Sergeant, Council on Geostrategy

It takes three to tango across the Taiwan Straits. Peace and stability here is in the hands of decision-makers in Beijing, Taipei, and Washington. With elections taking place in Taiwan and the US, making concrete predictions for 2024 is foolhardy.

It is, however, a given that Beijing will continue attempting to alter the status quo in its favour. Whether this is done with incentives or through coercion, and at what pace will depend on events elsewhere.

This week, voters in Taiwan will decide whether Lai Ching-te, the current vice-president, or one of the opposition candidates will take the top job. Who becomes president will determine Taipei’s cross-strait policy, and more crucially, shape Beijing’s corresponding approach.

A Lai victory would likely result in a continuation of Chinese pressure tactics, including military manoeuvres around Taiwan. Moreover, given this would be an unprecedented third successive victory for the Democratic Progressive Party, Beijing may look for a more immediate way of punishing Taiwan, for example, by further sanctioning Taiwanese imports.

A win for the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) will likely see a thawing across the Strait. But the KMT and the CCP have only agreed to disagree on ‘one China’. Whatever steps are taken to improve ties, Xi Jinping will not be truly satisfied.

Meanwhile, American polling points to the return of Donald Trump. Not only do Trump’s previous remarks put a question mark over his commitment to Taiwan but a significant proportion of the Republican Party has taken a similar isolationist turn. Additionally, internal division and a potential contested election (whoever wins) may also bring into question the US’s ability and willingness to respond to international crises.

Mann Virdee, Council on Geostrategy

Trust will be tested in 2024.

The British public are losing trust in government, the press, and other institutions – even as trust in science and in each other remains strong. Politicians’ behaviour during the pandemic, allegations of cronyism, as well as the soaring cost of living, have made the British public question whether the ‘rules of the game’ apply to everyone equally. 

Even more concerning, trust in government is declining around the globe. 

Now consider for a moment that 2024 will be the biggest year for elections – ever – and the potential change that may entail. Whatever the outcome of these elections, results will likely be highly divisive and trust tested.

We can expect government and opposition parties to disagree forcefully; that lies at the heart of the democratic process. But a decline in trust in traditional media sources has increasingly led people to seek outlets which reinforce their beliefs or let their news be curated for them. When people cannot agree on basic facts, it makes productive debate impossible. 

This phenomenon is not new. But in 2024, this ground will be fertile for sowing division and distrust – and it will be boosted by recent technological developments, particularly artificial intelligence (AI). AI has already been used to create fake endorsements and to make candidates appear to support views they do not hold. 

To combat this, Alphabet will seek to limit what its AI chatbot Bard can answer about elections, and Meta has barred political campaigns from using generative AI products. But these attempts will not stop AI disinformation.

In such an important year for democracy, how will voters know what or who to trust?

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