16 March 2021

What is Boris Johnson’s blueprint for Global Britain?


The Government’s long-awaited Integrated Review is finally upon us. The first of various documents to be released this week is ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’, which aims to clarify some of the key threats to our national security and set out post-Brexit Britain’s role in the world.

There are four key themes here: the UK’s role as a force for good in the world; security in Europe; the tilt to the Indo-Pacific and, finally, the threat from Russia and China.

It’s worth briefly setting out what ‘Global Britain’ actually means in this context. There are three central pillars to the agenda: first, continuing the defence and prosperity of our own backyard in Europe. Second, striking new and ambitious trade deals and championing global trade. Third, acting as a force for good by defending the rules-based order from malign authoritarian powers.

Protecting the rules-based order

Part of this agenda is upholding various international treaties, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which help underpin the rules-based liberal order.  Here, the Royal Navy-led international Carrier Strike Group will help safeguard the UNCLOS in the South China Sea from Beijing’s attempts to control the lucrative sea lanes through which 40% of European imports flow.

It’s not just about deploying military resources though. The UK is ranked third in the world for soft power, with the British Council operating in over 100 countries, and with the BBC as the most trusted broadcaster worldwide, reaching 468m people a week in 42 different languages. These soft power tools must be strengthen where needed, and their budgets protected.

Protecting Europe

Leaving the EU does not mean resiling from our responsibilities as a major European power. Just last month at the Munich Security Conference, the Prime Minister described the UK’s commitment to European security as “unconditional and immoveable”. Today’s ‘Global Britain’ document reinforces that point, underlining that Britain’s defence of Europe will be “unequivocal, through NATO, the Joint Expeditionary Force and strong bilateral relations”. 

This is far more than just warm words though. The UK will remain Europe’s largest defence spender – NATO’s second largest after the United States. It will shortly become the only European maritime power with two operational aircraft carriers, making ours the only European navy able to deploy a carrier 365 days a year at sea.

With the UK operating a more forward-deployed military presence from now on, Britain’s commitment to European defence is already ensured in several meaningful ways. This includes the enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics, UN peacekeeping in Mali, and naval patrols across the Mediterranean. 

Here, a resurgence of illegal Russian submarine activity across the eastern Mediterranean must be a focus for the Royal Navy, in particular when transiting through to the Indo-Pacific. Russia continues to defy the Montreux Convention, passing undetected through the Bosporus and breaching Turkish sovereignty. The eastern Mediterranean is one of the most sensitive regions for European security, and must be addressed further. 

Engaging with the Indo-Pacific

Looking further afield, the document cites three meaningful ways in which the UK needs to engage more with the Indo-Pacific region. The first is for economic opportunities. The Indo-Pacific already accounts for 17.5% of UK global trade and 10% of foreign direct investment. This will be developed further with increased free trade deals across the region, and in closer collaboration with emerging technology and research and development centres – particularly Singapore and South Korea. 

The second aspect of the Indo-Pacific tilt is based on national security. The region is at the centre of intensifying geopolitical flashpoints, including unresolved territorial and maritime disputes, nuclear proliferation, climate change threats and the menace of non-state based actors.

In particular, there remain several notable strategic choke points which British trade must pass through, including over 12% through the South China Sea each year, equivalent to £92bn. This is set to rise, so the UK must be prepared to increase its maritime presence across the region, while also by engaging further with allies and partners to help keep these sea lanes free and open. 

Between 2018 and 2020 the Royal Navy conducted five freedom of manoeuvre exercises in the South China Sea, and is almost certain to conduct more this summer with the Carrier Strike Group, in conjunction with US and Australian allies. These exercises uphold the very international rules which China seeks to threaten in this strategic space, and the UK must continue to conduct such exercises, especially with our allies.

Third is to preserve British values. Britain remains committed to development in a region that is home to one-third of the world’s poorest people, and will work closely with like-minded bilateral and multilateral partners. Promoting global priorities such as girls’ education and tackling climate change will be central to this approach. 

The Government’s aim is to become the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific – committed for the long term, with closer and deeper partnerships, bilaterally and multilaterally. This can only be achieved with greater engagement with regional allies, partners, and alliances including the Five Power Defence Agreement. 

State-based threats

The report is also clear-sighted about the dangers posed to our national security by hostile states.

Russia is listed as the nation’s greatest security threat. Even though Moscow has long operated in the so-called below-threshold campaign space against the UK, in its broader strategic aim to create disunity within NATO, the chemical attack in Salisbury in 2018 irrevocably changed the UK government’s strategic thinking. 

Russia continue to harass UK airspace at a danger to civil aviation authorities, whilst crashing out the RAF to escort. There has also been a steady increase in Russian submarine activity witnessed across the North Sea and the English Channel just off the UK coastline. Combined with the Kremlin’s cyber warfare and disinformation aimed at reducing British social resilience, there remain many avenues for the UK to engage with Russia in a more robust manner. 

In particular, maintaining a constant campaign posture in the below-threshold space in order to deter further acts of aggression. Here the role of the UK Space Command, National Cyber Centre, and Strategic Command will be of increasing importance to counter the Russian threat. 

China too poses a systemic challenge, both to Britain and our allies. The Xi regime’s increasing power and international assertiveness is likely to be the most significant geopolitical factor of the 2020s. The significant impact of China’s military modernisation and growing international assertiveness within the Indo-Pacific region and beyond will pose an increasing risk to UK interests. 

The document also identifies China as the largest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security. Particularly concerning is Beijing’s coordinated approach to intellectual property theft and investing in dual-use technologies, which it then has the ability to reinvest into Chinese military modernisation. 

Given this economic security classification, it’s puzzling and concerning that the document still advocates greater Chinese investment into the UK. We should really be looking at a British version of the US Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS), which reviews all foreign investment – in particular from those states representing significant threats to the nation’s economic security. The ongoing House of Lords International Relations Committee inquiry into Chinese investment and security should hopefully have something to say on these issues.

Overall though, this review into UK foreign policy for a post-Brexit age is a serious, considered look at what the security environment will look like in a post-Covid age. It’s a plan based on increasing national resilience, reducing critical supply chains from China whilst cautiously welcoming increased Chinese investment, countering the threats posed by Russia to UK territorial space, and engaging further with Indo-Pacific partners, whilst maintaining commitments to the defence of Europe and the trans-Atlantic partnership.

Be in no doubt that we are in a new era of great power competition, in which a truly Global Britain must be ready to address difficult challenges head-on over the coming decade. 

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Rob Clark is Defence and Global Britain Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.