The refresh of the integrated review of defence and foreign policy comes only two years after the original, and if Labour were to win the election it may only last a similar amount of time. Nor would it have happened if it hadn’t been for Conservative chaos, as reopening the review was the brainchild of the short-lived Liz Truss.
To be fair, the war in Ukraine has upended previous assumptions, but this is not really the path taken by Rishi Sunak. A large part of what is announced focuses on China and the emerging Australia, UK and US “Aukus” partnership to provide Canberra with nuclear powered submarines to give naval technological parity with Beijing.
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, has been given £5bn extra over two years, with £3bn of that going into investing in Britain’s nuclear capability, in part to facilitate the submarine build programme. Another £2bn is to restore stockpiles of ammunition sent to Ukraine and rebuild weapons supply chains, in other words a stopgap, and rather less than Wallace would have wanted.
It hardly amounts to a strategic reassessment of the purpose of Britain’s military and security. Rather it amounts to a determination to stay faithful to the “Indo-Pacific tilt”, a vague notion that has amounted to deploying Britain’s working aircraft carrier to the South China Sea as well as the ongoing effort to build a new nuclear powered submarine for Australia.
The events of the past year have reinforced the idea that Russia is, as Boris Johnson’s original integrated review had it, a “threat”. It was already a country that had sought to carry out nerve agent poisonings on British soil, corrupted the English legal system for its own ends, and whose hackers whether criminal or political pose a threat to government and business in the UK. Then it invaded Ukraine.
But although the language emerging from Downing Street tonight describes Russia as posing a “fundamental risk” to European security and the goal is to “deny Moscow any benefit” from the attack on Ukraine, it will be the language around China that will attract the closest political scrutiny, even if that is far less important.
China, previously “a systemic competitor” – a phrase generally useful, if unmemorable – has upgraded to presenting an “epoch-defining challenge” – as a nod to the Conservative backbenchers who had wanted Beijing to be designated as a threat, similar to that used to describe Russia.
This, in fact, was Truss’s reason for reopening the integrated review, to make such an aggressive re-designation that would only have further inflamed already fraught relations with Beijing. Epoch-defining is a large notion, not least because epochs tend to be very long, while integrated reviews emerge every two years, and if Labour wins, the party is likely to want to refocus on Russia, if that is, the US allows them.
Nevertheless “epoch-defining” also suggests the world is becoming a different kind of unsafe place. Islamist fundamentalism is in retreat, fallen sharply after the territorial defeat of Islamic State and the killing of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In its place is a rapprochement between Russia and China, state actors with larger budgets, more weaponry and sophisticated tools at their disposal.
This thinking underlies Sunak’s announcement to recommit to a target of lifting defence spending to 2.5% of GDP “in the longer term”, similar to what was announced by Johnson at the last Nato summit in June, one of his last acts before his premiership collapsed. Johnson, however, put a target date – 2030 – on when the pledge would be met, and Sunak hasn’t.
This would add a little over £10bn in real terms to the defence budget, nearly £50bn this year, money that would have to come from other public services.
As rearmaments go, it is more gradual than in some frontline states, such as Poland, which intends to go to above 4% of GDP. But it is more proportionate than Truss’s short-lived aspiration to take defence budgets to 3% in a notoriously profligate department; 2.5% would restore defence spending to level it was at under Labour.
But quite what the fresh language means for Britain’s policy approach to China specifically is less clear. Further boosting Britain’s tiny military presence in the Indo-Pacific is not obviously good value for money for the UK’s stretched armed forces – and for now, at least, the primary threat from Beijing to Britain is its ceaseless desire to steal intellectual property, not a military one.
A cautious reinvestment in British military capability ought be focused on helping Ukraine and frontline Nato states protect themselves, for example in Estonia where the UK chose to withdraw the extra British forces it had briefly based there after the assault on Ukraine. It is the security of Europe that is strategic to Britain, despite post-Brexit fantasies to the contrary.
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