Following a long two years, the UK’s Integrated Review from March 2021 now looks prescient in calling Russia the main threat to UK interests. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the main – but not the only – reason forcing an update of the review only 24 months later.
The UK’s commitment to Ukraine is now centre stage and so therefore is its cost, which immediately exposes a prime weakness of this review. An extra £5 billion on defence is more than nothing, as was originally rumoured, but far less than £11 billion which UK defence secretary Ben Wallace argues is needed.
UK military support for Ukraine cost £2.3 billion in the past year and a continuation will use up £2 billion of the new money. The report also notes £3 billion will go on infrastructure for building nuclear submarines at Barrow and nuclear training. That does not leave much for anything else.
There is a pledge to end the reduction of the armed forces which is essential if the UK contribution to Ukraine and European defence is to be credible. But an ambition to spend 2.5 per cent of GDP on defence by an unspecified date is all but meaningless – albeit prudent phrasing given fiscal uncertainties.
China challenge is one of balance
Ministers have been wrestling for months over their choice of language on China, and ‘epoch defining challenge’ is what has emerged, while also expressing concern over China’s links with Russia. But the review is careful to stop short of calling China a threat as Liz Truss intended.
The choice of vocabulary reflects a long desire to balance forging commercial ties with an increasing wariness of data and security threats under President Xi’s leadership of China. The UK wants to support the US in its concerns but not to presume conflict is inescapable.
The review does acknowledge the threat to Taiwan for the first time. Two years ago, it was fiercely criticized for not including any mention of that despite the potential disruption supposedly being ‘far more damaging than the renewed illegal invasion of Ukraine’ as MPs on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee put it.
But again the question of resources is inescapable. The ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ which the UK declared two years ago is offered not just as a recognition of the region’s political and economic heft in any vision of the future, but as a favour to the US.
The UK lacks the resources to make that tilt credible in terms of substantial support to the US – nor, arguably, would it do the US any favours by neglecting the defence of Europe or the Middle East, which gets scant mention.
The AUKUS announcement on the same day appears to fill that gap. UK prime minister Rishi Sunak was in San Diego, California to greet the declaration that Australia will draw on British designs for its new nuclear submarines – a decision which brings more British jobs and underpins an alliance of both symbolic and practical weight in the region. But for the UK to play its part fully, it may need to divert resources from elsewhere, and this review sidesteps that hard choice.
More broadly, the UK would benefit from considering how to respond to the reality of China’s rise – analysing what happens to supply chains if tension disrupted them and how it might use membership of the Asia-Pacific CPTPP trading bloc, which appears likely to happen soon.
One of the biggest omissions in the 2021 review was relations with Europe and that is somewhat remedied but more is needed. The UK has been a leader for Europe in its clear response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – almost the only common thread of passionate agreement between the three UK prime ministers since the invasion – but it should now consider if it wants to take part in joint development of military assets. And a clear statement of cooperation with European Union (EU) governments would be a boost to NATO.
There is also now a Europe-shaped hole in the review’s discussion of trade. The 2021 version mentioned trade 79 times with the focus on new trade agreements outside Europe. It is now clear, if it was not before, these make little difference to GDP. The recent repairing of relations with the EU – and France in particular – may yield more practical results two years from now.
UK power in the world is changing
The review is also largely silent on another difficulty in the UK’s foreign policy which are the aims and size of its development aid – much changed from its original goal of poverty reduction to a focus on national interest with a reduced budget. This is sensitive political territory but must be better spelled out to count as a plan.
The FCDO intends to appoint a second permanent under-secretary to deliver the government’s development priorities and the minister for international development will join the National Security Council. This acknowledges the disruption caused by the merger of the FCO with DFID and the need for development staff to have clear leadership as well as, hopefully soon, a clear policy.
The pledge of a one-off payment of £20 million for the BBC World Service 42 foreign language channels for two years is welcome too as an acknowledgement of their ‘soft power’ value, especially in parts of the world where democracy is absent or in retreat.