On taking office as Prime Minister, Liz Truss tasked her officials to ‘update’ the Integrated Review, which was completed in 2021 by Boris Johnson’s administration. This will probably not result in a thorough re-write, but a short ‘new chapter’ not unlike the 2002 addition to the 1998 Strategic Defence Review.
Coupled with the closure of the Department for International Development and the establishment of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and a significant uplift in defence spending in 2020, the Integrated Review provided the inspiration for an impressive list of British foreign policy successes over the past 18 months. From AUKUS and the so-called ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific (especially Japan, Southeast Asia and India) to assistance for Ukraine and measures to empower the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), including the security assurances given to Sweden and Finland, ‘Global Britain’ started to become a reality.
But not all is rosy. While the Integrated Review correctly designated Russia as the most ‘direct’ and ‘immediate’ threat to British interests, it did not anticipate the Kremlin’s war of conquest against Ukraine. Likewise, despite labelling the People’s Republic of China (PRC) a ‘systemic competitor’, the speed of the authoritarian turn of Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and de facto president, was unforeseen. This is why Truss’ government is right to think harder about how heightened geopolitical competition will affect British interests in the 2020s.
However, the correct lessons ought to be learnt from Russia’s aggression. True, for the next year or so, the United Kingdom’s (UK) overriding objective should be to prevent Russia from consolidating its hold over the territories it has seized from Ukraine. But this does not mean Britain should focus exclusively on the defence of Europe. For starters, this would let European allies off the hook when they need to be compelled to do more to share the burden in underwriting their own continent’s security.
If Britain is to become more prosperous and secure, it needs to become more sovereign – especially in relation to states which do not respect the international order.
More importantly, by concentrating more on the Euro-Atlantic, the UK would fail to prepare for what is still set to be a maritime century centred on the Indo-Pacific. In particular, as Admiral Sir Ben Key, the First Sea Lord, told the Council on Geostrategy in July 2022: ‘The risk of focusing solely on Russia is that you miss the long term strategic challenge posed by China.’
For, despite its economic problems, the PRC does not need to go to war to make its presence felt: the scale of its naval buildup, its ability to dominate certain cutting-edge technologies such a 5G and quantum computing, and its willingness to hide domestic problems from the eyes of a curious world – as with Covid-19 – have already provided a glimpse of its active and passive potential. This potential is not limited to Asia; it is increasingly present in Europe, too.
This is why the UK cannot give up on the Indo-Pacific, even if it wanted to.
Instead, it should apply the lessons recently learnt in Europe to the Indo-Pacific. For too long Europeans have overlooked their growing dependency on Russian energy, particularly oil and gas. While the UK did not become dependent on Russian supplies, it paid insufficient attention to the geoeconomic and geopolitical implications of the dependency of its own neighbours, particularly of Germany.
Geostrategically speaking, what matters here is not so much the dependency but the vast payments of money – approximately €1 trillion between 2010-2019 – which Germany and other Europeans poured into Russia’s coffers in exchange for oil and gas. Undoubtedly, these payments entrenched the kleptocracy of Vladimir Putin and enabled his aggression against neighbours. Short-term economic considerations were prioritised over longer-term geopolitical ones.
Today, with the PRC, free and open countries, the UK included, run the risk of making a similar mistake. In turning the PRC into the ‘workshop of the world’, they have not only contributed to their own dependency and de-industrialisation, while shifting greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere, but have, more importantly, empowered the CCP, whose interests are very different to their own.
With Russia, ‘change through trade’ did not work. It is now clearer than ever that it will not work with the PRC either; the PRC has now been a member of the World Trade Organisation for over twenty years. Economic and political divergence from the PRC is now required. If Britain is to become more prosperous and secure, it needs to become more sovereign – especially in relation to states which do not respect the international order. Similarly to Russia, it makes no sense to empower an authoritarian regime which lacks the checks and balances of a democratic nation.
Consequently, Truss’ officials do not need to rethink the balance of geographic interests between the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific. Rather, they need to overcome the fundamental disconnect between Britain’s short-term economic and longer-term geostrategic interests. In designating the PRC as a ‘systemic competitor’, the Integrated Review began to identify the problem. More work is now needed to prevent Britain from helping the PRC, albeit unintendedly, to become another Russia – a direct and acute threat to the British people, economy and state.
James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.
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