LONDON — It is Boris Johnson’s 100-plus page blueprint for Global Britain.
On Tuesday, the U.K. prime minister will lay out his vision for the country’s international role after Brexit, setting the country’s global destiny for years to come.
The “integrated review of security, defense, development and foreign policy” will place greater emphasis on security at sea, in space and against cyber threats — while also laying out a tilt toward the Indo-Pacific and a “foreign policy of increased international activism.” It establishes tackling climate change and preserving biodiversity as the country’s number one international priority.
Johnson will say that the U.K. must “play a more active part in sustaining an international order in which open societies and economies continue to flourish and the benefits of prosperity are shared through free trade and global growth.”
“We must show that the freedom to speak, think and choose — and therefore to innovate — offers an inherent advantage; and that liberal democracy and free markets remain the best model for the social and economic advancement of humankind,” he will add.
The long-delayed strategy document, authored by the historian and King’s College London academic John Bew, will flesh out Johnson’s ambition to make Britain Europe’s leading naval power, modernize the Royal Air Force and invest in R&D and cybersecurity. At the same time, it de-emphasizes land-based defense of Northern Europe where other countries like Germany, with its large numbers of tanks, can step up. The prime minister will also restate his pledge to create a military space force capable of launching the U.K.’s first rocket by 2022.
And while defense spending is set to increase, less of that money will go towards conventional ground forces, with rumors that troop numbers could be slashed by up to 10,000 — a move that would concern some NATO allies under most direct threat from an increasingly aggressive Russia.
Nonetheless, the threat posed by Russia remains at the center of Britain’s national security strategy, with the review expected to stress “the importance of Euro-Atlantic security as the basis of everything we can do as a country,” on U.K. government official said.
This chimes with what Johnson himself said in his February speech at the Munich Security Conference, when he declared that the “success of global Britain depends on the security of our homeland and the stability of the Euro-Atlantic area.”
The strategy will include references to NATO as the “bedrock” of U.K. defense and security, and state the need to work with allies on trade and defense in order to shape the international order. There will also be references to foreign policy areas where the U.K. is cooperating with the EU and with its national capitals, such as the Iran nuclear deal.
The context for the review is an increase in the U.K. defense budget by £16.5 billion over four years — the biggest since the end of the Cold War — and a cut to the aid budget from 0.7 to 0.5 percent of GDP, which the government insists is temporary. Nonetheless, in the short term, the Ministry of Defense must find cuts of £1 billion in 2022 — likely meaning a reduction in the size of the army from just over 80,000 to just over 70,000. The details of those cuts won’t come until March 22 though, with the release of a defense command paper.
Such a move will raise questions at NATO over the U.K.’s contribution to its flagship Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), launched in 2015, in the aftermath of the Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. The VJTF consists of 5,000 international troops which the U.K. is expected to command in 2027.
“I wonder whether we will be able to keep doing that — it is a question worth asking,” said Ian Bond, foreign policy director at the Centre for European Reform think tank. “NATO has always assumed that Britain will make a significant contribution to any land defense of Europe. We have a relatively small number of troops in Estonia, but NATO has worked on the basis that we would also have a larger body of troops available to defend Europe.”
The strategy will treat China as an economic competitor and set out a tilt toward the Indo-Pacific, following strategies published by France, Germany and the U.S. on how to deal with increased instability in the region and China’s push for influence. The Indo-Pacific includes crucial seaways in the South China Sea, and between India and Japan.
“This is the first time the U.K. has said we need to be thinking more about what’s happening far beyond our shores in the Indo-Pacific in terms of trade and prosperity, but also in terms of defense and diplomacy,” the government official said.
Tobias Ellwood, a Tory MP who chairs the House of Commons’ defense committee, warned the U.K. faces more danger and instability as China begins to flex its military muscles. “That is the Cold War that I believe is now developing,” he told an online event last month. “The biggest challenge for me and the long-term geopolitical and strategic threat is absolutely climate change, but it’s actually China nudging us out as their favoured nation status with many of our Commonwealth friends. This is not about us buying higher-tech gear and F35s, it’s actually buying simple stuff which we almost gift, if you like, to our friends.”
As an appetizer of what this might mean, Johnson has already announced that the new £3 billion Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will be deployed to the Indian Ocean and East Asia later this year, carrying a squadron of F35 jets from the U.S. Marine Corps.
Cyber security boost
Ahead of the publication of the review, Johnson announced that the National Cyber Force — created last year to improve the U.K.’s capacity to conduct cyber operations against terrorists, hostile states and criminal gangs — will be based in the north of England, not far from the intelligence service GCHQ’s Manchester office. The government’s five-year cyber security strategy is due at the end of March.
Ciaran Martin, professor at the University of Oxford and former head of cybersecurity at GCHQ, said the U.K. might face resistance from non-Western countries to sign up to international cyber security rules.
“The U.K. and allies in the West might find it more challenging than they think to get the non-Western parts of the world — and not just China, I’m talking about India, Africa, Latin America and so forth — to sign up to a set of agreed principles about cyberspace,” he said. “There will be a sense in the rest of the world that the days in which the West is allowed to set all of the rules are over.”
With the goal of increasing the U.K.’s domestic resilience, the government will set a Situation Centre based in the Cabinet Office, focused on improving Whitehall’s use of data to respond to crises. A Counter-Terrorism Operations Centre will bring together the police, the intelligence agencies and the criminal justice system, Downing Street said.
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