The British government, on March 16, published a 111-page “Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy” through which it seeks to chart a new, post-European Union, future for itself and establish a larger, multidimensional, global footprint. Observers had already noted that the widely anticipated (and delayed) review would be the first such since the end of the Cold War and could mark a fundamental shift in British security thinking.
“The world has changed considerably since the 2015 Strategic Defense and Security Review, as has the U.K.’s place within it. Our departure from the European Union (EU) provides a unique opportunity to reconsider many aspects of our domestic and foreign policy, building on existing friendships but also looking further afield,” it noted as a foundational assumption, adding, “We must also do more to adapt to major changes in the world around us, including the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region.”
While the review is indeed quite substantial, meriting a close examination – covering, as it does, the entire gamut of British security issues, ranging from emerging transnational threats to the U.K.’s nuclear posture – when it comes to the Indo-Pacific and China, three things stand out on a first, quick, reading. (The Diplomat’s defense columnist Jacob Parakilas, in a separate piece, raises difficult questions about Britain’s military wherewithal to support the strategy outlined in the review.)
System Structure: Multipolarity and Middle Powers Bet
The review makes a clear, unambiguous prediction about the future structure of the international system. It notes: “By 2030, it is likely that the world will have moved further towards multipolarity, with the geopolitical and economic center of gravity moving eastward towards the Indo-Pacific.” Within this change in the polarity of the international system, the document states:
Increasing great power competition is unlikely to mean a return to Cold War-style blocs. Instead, the influence of middle powers is likely to grow in the 2020s, particularly when they act together. In this context, the Indo-Pacific will be of increasing geopolitical and economic importance, with multiple regional powers with significant weight and influence, both alone and together.
Without litigating the prognosis about the future structure of the international system (a strong case could be made that the international system is moving away from unipolarity to a nascent bipolar structure, with China emerging as a pole), the U.K.’s claim that middle powers will play a large role when acting in concert will come as music to the ears of many in Canberra, New Delhi, and Tokyo – and could also lead to greater British participation in small groupings involving these capitals.
China: Having Your Cake and Eating It Too
One is left with the unmistakable impression that when it comes to China, the British government’s position remains quixotic – and consequently, could lead to confused policies. The review, in its description of the U.K.’s future posture towards the country, notes:
The fact that China is an authoritarian state, with different values to ours, presents challenges for the U.K. and our allies. China will contribute more to global growth than any other country in the next decade with benefits to the global economy. China and the U.K. both benefit from bilateral trade and investment, but China also presents the biggest state-based threat to the U.K.’s economic security.
This juxtaposition of optimism and pessimism – of seeking to work with China and leveraging its considerable economic heft while also pushing back against its bad behavior – sets the tone of the U.K.’s China engagement. But all said and done, it is quite tricky to deepen commercial ties with China while assuming that one can safeguard security interests independent of them (as Australia has brutally learned over the course of 2020).
Indo-Pacific: Broad, Pragmatic Engagement
The review has a special section on the United Kingdom’s much-advertised Indo-Pacific “tilt” (pp. 66-67). And the document does deliver a concrete action plan, with nine items, on that front, ranging from new trade agreements with key regional powers such as Australia and New Zealand, to engagement with ASEAN, to more focused use of overseas development assistance. When it comes to Britain’s security goals in the region, the review is clear:
Much of the U.K.’s trade with Asia depends on shipping that goes through a range of Indo-Pacific choke points. Preserving freedom of navigation is therefore essential to the U.K.’s national interests. We already work closely with regional partners and will do more through persistent engagement by our armed forces and our wider security capacity-building.
Towards that end, the “durian pact” (the Five Power Defense Arrangement) also gets a (justifiable) mention. But what is interesting is how the document’s Indo-Pacific section does not mention the United States once, while it notes future collaboration with other European powers, France and Germany, to meet regional goals. (Of course, the U.S. occupies a place of pride in the overarching framework presented in the document.) Somewhat cheekily: Does the United Kingdom consider the United States an Indo-Pacific power? Or were other concerns (read: not overtly antagonizing China) at play here?