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UK Aims to Counter China 'Threat' in Major Defense Review

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the weekly question time debate at the House of Commons in London, Britain, March 10, 2021. (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via Reuters)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the weekly question time debate at the House of Commons in London, Britain, March 10, 2021. (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via Reuters)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to counter what he called the “systemic challenge” posed by China as he set out the government’s 10-year defense strategy Tuesday.

Some ruling Conservative Party lawmakers, however, have accused Johnson of “going soft” on Beijing.

Britain is seeking to carve out a new role on the world stage outside the European Union. The government’s “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy" says Russia remains the most acute threat facing the country but warns that China poses a “systemic challenge to our security, prosperity and values.”

Uyghurs, Hong Kongers

“The U.K. … has led the international community in expressing our deep concern over China’s mass detention of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang province, and in giving nearly 3 million of Hong Kong’s people a route to British citizenship,” Johnson told lawmakers.

“There is no question that China will pose a great challenge for an open society such as ours, but we will also work with China where that is consistent with our values and interests, including in building a stronger and positive economic relationship and in addressing climate change,” he said.

He added that changing defense priorities would enable the country to fulfil his post-Brexit pledge of a “global Britain.”

“Britain will remain unswervingly committed to NATO and preserving peace and security in Europe. From this secure basis, we will seek out friends and partners wherever they can be found, building a coalition for openness and innovation, and engaging more deeply in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

“I have invited the leaders of Australia, South Korea and India to attend the G-7 summit in Carbis Bay in June, and I am delighted to announce that I will visit India next month to strengthen our friendship with the world’s biggest democracy. Our approach will place diplomacy first. The U.K. has applied to become a dialogue partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and we will seek to join the trans-Pacific free trade agreement,” Johnson said.

Carrier's voyage

To demonstrate that engagement, Britain’s new aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, will make its maiden voyage to the Indo-Pacific later this year.

However, several ruling Conservative Party lawmakers accused Johnson of “going soft” on China for seeking deeper trade links.

Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chairman of Parliament’s Defense Select Committee, wrote on Twitter that China was “still not seen as a geo-strategic threat but a competitive trading partner.”

Opposition Labor Party leader Keir Starmer also criticized the government’s approach.

“We welcome the deepening of engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, but that comes on the back of an inconsistent policy towards China for a decade. Conservative governments have spent 10 years turning a blind eye to human rights abuses while inviting China to help build our infrastructure,” Starmer told MPs.

Johnson said those seeking a “new Cold War” with Beijing were mistaken.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense is set to detail later this month how the new strategy outlined in the “Integrated Review” would be implemented. Countering China’s assertiveness will require a broad response, said analyst Veerle Nouwens of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.

“This won't just be about sending ships to the region or planes to the region. It will really be about equally investing in new technologies, be that quantum, A.I., cyber, space, you name it. So, it really is a broader challenge than just the immediate visible military things that we know of when we speak about China's rise and assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific itself,” Nouwens told VOA.

Focusing on strengths

“It would be very difficult to compete with China match for match, point for point, but I think that's the situation that most countries are heading to," Nouwens said. "We do have limited resources, and so, it is really about finding those angles that the U.K. already has real strength in and working with partners and allies or others to try and shore up capability, shore up knowledge, and come out with products and technologies that allies can share alike.”

Johnson added that the United States would remain Britain’s closest ally.

“In all our endeavours, the United States will be our greatest ally and a uniquely close partner in defense, intelligence and security," he told lawmakers. "Britain’s commitment to the security of our European home will remain unconditional and immovable.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are visiting Japan and South Korea this week, with China at the top of the agenda. Speaking Wednesday in Seoul, Blinken underlined the threat posed by Beijing.

“China is using coercion and aggression to systematically erode autonomy in Hong Kong, undercut democracy in Taiwan, abuse the human rights situation in Tibet and assert maritime claims in the South China Sea that violate international law,” Blinken said at a news conference.

China accused the U.S. of disrupting regional peace and stability. Beijing has yet to respond to Britain’s plans for greater engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

Meanwhile, Britain also announced it would raise the cap on its nuclear arsenal to 260 warheads from 180. Critics said that would breach Britain’s commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The government said the figure was a cap, not a target.

Johnson confirmed a $33 billion multiyear boost to military spending. He said Britain’s total defense budget stood at 2.2% of GDP, above the NATO spending commitment of 2%. Part of the new investment will fund a new counterterrorism operations center and a new National Cyber Force.