UK looks to Asia in post-Brexit foreign policy overhaul

·4-min read

Britain unveiled plans Tuesday to pivot its strategic focus towards Asia, counter Russian threats and bolster its nuclear stockpile, in one of the biggest overhauls of security, defence and foreign policy since the Cold War era.

The conclusions of the government's so-called Integrated Review, crafted over the past year as London recalibrates its post-Brexit foreign policy, include labelling China a "systemic competitor".

The document -- entitled "Global Britain in a Competitive Age" -- identifies Russia as the "most acute direct threat to the UK" which poses "the full spectrum" of dangers.

It also notably announces 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".

"The overriding purpose of this review -- the most comprehensive since the Cold War –- is to make the United Kingdom stronger, safer and more prosperous while standing up for our values," Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament.

"(It) describes how we will bolster our alliances, strengthen our capabilities, find new ways of reaching solutions and re-learn the art of competing against states with opposing values."

In a foreword to the review, Johnson stated that Britain, which formally left the European Union 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".

- 'Clear-eyed relationship' -

The review emerges as Britain seeks to reaffirm its much touted "special relationship" with the United States under new President Joe Biden, despite Johnson's close alignment with Donald Trump.

Johnson told MPs that Washington remained London's "greatest ally" and the UK was "unswervingly committed" to NATO.

But the report identifies the Indo-Pacific region -- including Asian powers such as India, Japan and South Korea, as well as emerging economies like Indonesia and Vietnam -- as "critical" to Britain's economy, security and global ambitions.

While the UK has already applied for partner status at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Johnson is due to make his first post-EU visit to India in April.

The review noted that China's power and international assertiveness would likely be the most significant geopolitical factor of the decade.

However, UK-China relations have become increasingly strained on issues ranging from espionage and cyber-attacks to human rights and Hong Kong.

Despite describing Beijing as a "systemic competitor", the review concluded cooperation would be vital in tackling various transnational challenges, in particular climate change.

"Open, trading economies like the UK will need to engage with China and remain open to Chinese trade and investment," it said.

Under pressure from some within his own party to be tougher on China, Johnson told MPs Britain must have a "clear-eyed relationship" with the rising power.

- 'Full spectrum of threats' -

The review paints a more pessimistic outlook for relations with Russia, which Britain blames for killing one former KGB spy and the attempted murder of another with a weapons-grade nerve agent in 2018, both on British soil.

Britain has also blamed Kremlin-linked actors of orchestrating attempts to hack coronavirus research labs and of trying to interfere in its 2019 general election.

"Russia will remain the most acute direct threat to the UK," it stated, adding "until relations with its government improve, we will actively deter and defend against the full spectrum of threats".

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

Britain will also build a White House-style situation room to coordinate responding to security threats and a new counter-terrorism operations centre.

Restoring the international aid budget to 0.7 percent of gross national income, following a much-criticised temporary cut announced last year, would happen "when the fiscal situation allows".

Reaction to the review swiftly focused on nuclear weapons, given repeated calls for Britain's Trident programme to be scrapped as global disarmament efforts stall.

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.