The British Government is currently in the concluding stages of what it has described as the ‘deepest and most radical’ review of UK foreign, security and defence policy since the end of the Cold War. This Integrated Review was planned to report this autumn at the same time as the Government’s Spending Review which would set its financial plans for much of the rest of the current parliamentary period.
It has been buffeted by COVID-19. It was ‘paused’ for some weeks at the height of the first wave of the pandemic – and, in October, the Treasury announced that the Spending Review would cover one year only. Speculation about the fate of the Integrated Review was ended on 19th November when the Prime Minister announced a generous multi-year financial settlement for the Ministry of Defence and that the Review itself would conclude ‘early next year, setting out the UK’s international agenda.’ While public consultation on the Review has been limited, there have been several indications that the United Kingdom’s relationship with China – and the wider Indo-Pacific region – would be a significant feature.
China presents a particular challenge for the Integrated Review – and for British security and defence planning. China did not figure prominently in the previous Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) of 2015 or in intervening documents such as the National Security Capability Review of March 2018. China’s ‘rise’ was seen mainly as an economic opportunity.
The 2015 SDSR noted that ‘We are also strengthening our economic relationship with China…. Our ambition is that China becomes our second biggest export destination within the next decade’, while the 2019 follow-up report said that ‘Our relationship with China is broad and deep, bringing enduring benefit to both countries.’
China has generally not been seen as a military threat – its formidable Armed Forces have been getting stronger for many years, but they are a long way from us. It has never been a consistently significant feature in British defence planning – unlike Russia which, whether in its current form, as the Soviet Union or before then as the Russian Empire, has been seen as a geopolitical competitor since the early 19th century. The Modernising Defence Programme published in December 2018 had little to say on China.
But China has now ‘risen’ – and has been exhibiting behaviour for several years which calls into question the credibility of the official line that China presents the UK with both opportunities and risks that can be managed. First, there has been a systematic increase in repression internally. Secondly, there has been a well-documented emerging pattern of coercive and/or disruptive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond – whether the militarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea; intimidation (using military or ‘Coastguard’ assets) of regional states; and continuing cyber-attacks.
‘Grey zone’ or ‘sub-threshold’ coercion is a continuum – and behaviour at the softer end (such as cyber hacking of intellectual property, targeted purchasing of high-tech companies, and aggressive ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy) is being increasingly experienced elsewhere – including in Europe. While not amounting to a blueprint for global domination, it is a reasonable deduction that such behaviour will continue and accelerate in the absence of pushback – until European countries accept their place in China’s ‘community of common destiny’. The growing entente between China and Russia means that the former risks becoming an accomplice in the latter’s agenda to destabilize the European security order.
In the context of the Integrated Review, the UK Government needs to decide what this means for Defence.
On the one hand, given the ‘grey zone’ tools mainly used by China, it could conclude that this is an issue primarily for other departments and agencies, with a limited supporting role for Defence. But one cannot draw a sharp dichotomy between ‘military’ and ‘non-military’ means – this barely exists in Chinese doctrine. Like Russia, China uses conventional military assets/ activities as latent reinforcement of the other means. So, on the other hand, there has been speculation that the UK might start to deploy combat units to the Indo-Pacific on a regular or continuous basis, including its new aircraft carriers. This would start to make China’s military strength – for the first time – a driver of the structures and capabilities of the UK Armed Forces. Sustaining a credible UK military presence in the Indo-Pacific would require either a shift of maritime and air assets from the Euro-Atlantic region or investment in additional such assets, presumably at the expense of other capabilities.
This risks becoming a false dichotomy for the UK. The Western country with most equities at stake in the Indo-Pacific will remain the US – which is likely to move towards a more explicit deterrence posture towards China and provide most of the forces required. The UK should start by considering how it can best contribute to this posture, taking into account the views of the US and other key partners such as Japan and Australia.
The reality is that, while the UK is a big player militarily in the Euro-Atlantic region, it is much less so in the Indo-Pacific – in terms of simple quantity or mass, its Armed Forces are significantly smaller than Japan’s. While the US would no doubt welcome periodic UK deployments to the Indo-Pacific, they would have limited strategic value – it might be better for the UK to help alleviate the pressures on the US by picking up some of its current tasks in Europe and the Gulf, facilitating the redeployment of US forces to the Indo-Pacific.
There are also other – less eye-catching but more meaningful – ways in which the UK could contribute to Indo-Pacific security, such as deepening its defence partnerships with Japan, Australia and other friendly regional powers. This has been happening quietly for some years, but there is scope to go further – not least through practical cooperation on capabilities. The recent agreement with Australia on cooperation on the Type 26 and Hunter frigate programmes is a good start. Such an approach would complement renewed diplomatic activity to develop the concept of a ‘D10’ grouping – the G7 (which the UK chairs in 2021) plus India, Australia and the Republic of Korea. It might also be compatible with maintaining viable working relationship with China on issues of shared concern like climate change.
In the space of five years, China has gone from being rather peripheral to the UK debate on international policy and security to being increasingly central. In the same period, it has gone from being seen primarily as an economic opportunity to a growing challenge to our security and values.
But Russia remains (and is likely to remain) a more immediate security threat to the UK than China – and, certainly, a greater military threat to the Euro-Atlantic region which is the lynchpin of UK security. And, even if diplomatic relations with China have cooled because of Hong Kong and China’s other recent domestic and international actions, the economic relationship between the UK and China will remain significantly more important than that with Russia.
The Integrated Review provides an opportunity both for a belated British recognition of the new reality of Chinese power – and to set out a realistic strategy for responding to it.
The author is an Associate Fellow of Chatham House. He was Director General Security Policy and then Director General Strategy & International in the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) from April 2014 to November 2018. The views expressed here are personal and not necessarily representative of those of the MOD or other organisations to which the author is now affiliated.
The piece is part of multi-year project on China’s rise and the future of the transatlantic partnership. Chatham House would like to thank the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung) for its generous support of this work. The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Chatham House, or the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
 Rt Hon Ben Wallace, Defence Secretary, Sunday Telegraph 26 July 2020
 HM Government, Oral Statement to Parliament, PM Statement to the House on the Integrated Review: 19 November 2020, 19th November 2020.
 HM Government, Strategic Defence & Security Review, November 2015, paragraphs 5.74 and 5.75
 HM Government, National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence & Security Review 3rd Annual Report, July 2019, page 32, paras 3.48-3.52
 Ministry of Defence, Mobilising, Modernising & Transforming Defence: A report on the Modernising Defence Programme, December 2018. The “Threat” section states simply: “Other sophisticated military powers – particularly China – are investing heavily in new capabilities, as well as more conventional ones.” (page 12)
 Ministry of Defence, Press Release, UK and Australia commit to shipbuilding partnership, 20th October 2020