Global Britain: what we’ve learned from biggest foreign policy review ‘since Cold War’

Report calls for shift in relationships with key foreign powers

Boris Johnson
(Image credit: Charles McQuillan - Pool / Getty Images)

As the UK struggles to carve out a post-Brexit place in the world, Boris Johnson has laid out his vision for Britain’s defence and foreign policy.

What does the review say?

Titled Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the 100-page government report is the “most radical reassessment of Britain’s place in the world since the end of the Cold War”, says The Times.

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A key conclusion is that Britain must expand its influence in the Indo-Pacific region, which is described as being “increasingly the geopolitical centre of the world”.

It should seek to strengthen ties with countries including India, Japan and Australia as part of efforts to compete with the growing threat of China, which is the “biggest-state based threat” to the UK’s economic security and a “systemic challenge” to British interests.

Despite these warnings, however, the review also emphasises the need to pursue a positive economic relationship with the Asian superpower, including “deeper trade links and more Chinese investment”, in order to preserve “space for cooperation where our interests align”.

The tone is more consistent when it comes to fellow superpower Russia, which is said to be “the most acute threat to our security”.

But as The Guardian notes, neither China nor Russia “is explicitly mentioned when it comes to justifying the headline decision in the review”: a reversal of plans to reduce Britain’s nuclear weapons stockpile, with the number of Trident warheads instead increased from 180 to 260.

The review says the recommendation is made “in recognition of the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats”.

But “it’s clear that the two nuclear powers are in mind”, the newspaper argues.

The report also warns that terrorists are likely to launch a “successful” chemical, biological, or nuclear attack, and that further novel pandemics remain a “realistic possibility”.

Who has welcomed the report recommendations?

Although Johnson is facing a backlash from his China-sceptic backbench MPs, the report has been welcomed by several international relations and security experts.

Sophie Gaston of the British Foreign Policy Group called the report a “significant step forward in the UK’s new life outside the European Union,” adding that it was “more comprehensive and nuanced” than similar preceding reports

The proposed approach to China would bring the UK in line with the US, she noted. US secretary of state Antony Blinken last month remarked that his country’s approach to China would be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be”.

Former No. 10 adviser Tom Fletcher agreed that the review was “better than anticipated” and demonstrated an “unusual honesty on trade offs: sometimes the pursuit of our interests does require us to talk to countries that don’t share our values”, he tweeted.

National Security Adviser Peter Ricketts calls it a “carefully crafted document balancing precariously key policy continuities and eye-catching new themes”. But on the UK’s approach to China he asks: “how resilient is this position given pressure from Tory China hawks and US?”

And who is unhappy?

Johnson is dealing with a backlash from many of his backbench MPs who would refer to see a tougher approach to China from the government.

Julian Lewis, intelligence committee chairman, accused the government of “grasping naivety” while defence committee chairman Tobias Ellwood said the government had not called out China “for the geo-strategic threat that it is”.

Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed concerns over designating China “simply as a systemic challenge given the terrible events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang”, where China has been accused of serious human rights abuses.

Indeed the new strategy is likely to met with “relief” in China, said foreign affairs committee chair Tom Tugendhat: Beijing would be “pleased” there was “no direct criticism” of the state.

Former M16 chief Alex Younger told BBC Radio 4 that China was a “generational threat” and warned China would not become more like the West as it got richer. In an opinion piece for The Times today he notes that while the world’s “greatest problems” would be “impossible” to solve without China, Britain should not “dodge the fact that we are in a fierce competition and in some cases in a vital contest” with the super-power.

What happens next?

“The reality is that strategy reviews aren’t just about ideas, they’re about resource allocation”, writes Tugendhat in The Times today. “The vision set out is bold, but it’s not cheap and the next page will be written by the Treasury leaving the last question - what will Rishi pay for?”, he asks.

There is a “world of difference” between “saying that you can” implement new policy ideas - such as increasing the size of our nuclear arsenal - “and saying that you will”, says Stephen Bush in New Statesman. “The former is free, while the latter is expensive”, he adds.

Notably, there is also little mention of the UK’s relationship with the EU, says the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, James Lansdale. There are questions over what new ties in the Indo-Pacific region will mean “in practice” and “whether it will come at a cost of not focusing enough on repairing relations with the EU”.

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 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.