UK gives priority to Indo-Pacific region as part of foreign policy revamp

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts the UN Security Council's virtual meeting on climate change risks in London, Britain, 23 February 2021. [EPA-EFE/Hollie Adams]

The UK is set to shift its focus from Europe to the Indo-Pacific region as part of a planned revamp of its foreign, trade and defence policy announced on Tuesday (16 March), which made scarce references to a future EU-UK security relationship.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told UK lawmakers on Tuesday that the country needed to “relearn the art of competing against states with opposing values” and described the UK’s new Integrated Review, which encompasses defence, foreign affairs, trade and development policy, as the most comprehensive since the Cold War.

However, despite the shift towards South-East Asia, which will involve the UK applying to join the Trans-Pacific free trade agreement this year, the review – entitled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”- states that China represents the biggest state-based threat to the UK, labelling it a “systemic competitor”.

Britain to apply to join Asia-Pacific free trade bloc

Britain said it is to apply to join a massive 11-nation free-trade bloc of Asia-Pacific countries this week, not long after quitting the European Union’s single market.

“There is no question that China will pose great challenges for an open society such as ours. But we will also work with China where that is consistent with our values and interests, including to build a stronger and positive economic relationship and address climate change,” Johnson said.

The document identifies Russia as the “most acute direct threat to the UK” which poses “the full spectrum” of dangers.

EU-UK relations, the missing link

Although one of the underlying reasons for publishing the review remains the UK’s recently completed departure from the EU, references to the bloc are few in number.

In a foreword to the review, Johnson stated that Britain, which formally left the EU last year, would look to “enjoy constructive and productive relationships” with remaining bloc members.

But he added the Brexit divorce deal agreed with Brussels “gives us the freedom to do things differently and better, both economically and politically”.

However, the review does not address whether the UK will seek to agree on a defence and security pact with the EU, which the Portuguese Council presidency has prioritised.

A country-by-country section in the middle of the official document begins by saying “the United States will remain the UK’s most important strategic ally and partner”, while the section on “European neighbours and allies” only promises to find “new ways” of working with the EU, although France and Germany are highlighted as key partners.

Instead, it states that leaving the EU will allow the UK to take “a distinctive approach to foreign policy” though it plans to “work with the EU where our interests coincide – for example, in supporting the stability and security of the European continent and in cooperating on climate action and biodiversity.”

“The EU and the UK continue to share interests and concerns on foreign policy and security issues globally,” EU’s chief diplomat Joseph Borrell said after a call with UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Tuesday.

Lord Peter Ricketts, a former National Security advisor and Foreign Office chief, described the 100 page document as “less of a radical shift than advertised” but questioned “how can the UK claim to be championing European security and rallying the democracies on global issues when it has no security relationship with the EU?”

The UK hopes to flex its diplomatic muscles this year by hosting a G7 summit in June and then the COP 26 climate change conference in November.

Johnson will visit India at the end of April in what will be his first major international trip after Britain’s exit from the EU,

UK's Johnson to visit India at end of April as part of policy ‘tilt’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will visit India at the end of April in what will be his first major international trip after Britain’s exit from the EU as part of efforts to boost UK opportunities in the region.

Nuclear cap lifted

Reaction to the review swiftly focused on nuclear weapons, given that the document announced an increase to Britain’s nuclear arsenal, reversing a previous commitment to reduce the stockpile to 180 warheads by pledging to increase it to 260 by the end of the decade, “in recognition of the evolving security environment”.

UK to increase nuclear stockpile

Britain is to announce an increase to its nuclear weapons stockpile as part of a wide-ranging review of security, defence and foreign policy, two newspapers said on Monday (15 March).

Opposition parties said the plan to increase warhead numbers broke with years of cross-party efforts to reduce the stockpile and appeared to conflict with the country’s obligations to non-proliferation treaties.

“(The review) doesn’t explain when, why or for what strategic purpose,” Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said.

“The United Kingdom’s decision to increase its warhead stockpile will contribute to the growing competition and distrust between nuclear-armed states. There is no compelling military or strategic rationale that justifies such an increase,” the US-based non-partisan Arms Control Association said in a statement.

The review also includes plans for military technology such as drones and artificial intelligence and renewed focus on space and cyber.

It will also spend an additional £16.5 billion on defence over the next four years and vowed to take a greater role in NATO as part of a “foreign policy of increased international activism”.

The review also includes plans to beef up the UK’s tech capacity in law enforcement by establishing a Counter-Terrorism Operations Centre and a National Cyber Force, building a White House-style situation room to coordinate responding to security threats.

On development aid, meanwhile, the review pledges to return to the commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income, a promise which was abandoned last year but gives no timetable for doing so.

“As governments become able to finance their own development priorities, we will gradually move towards providing UK expertise in place of grants,” the review states in a later chapter.

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