Integrated Review Refresh outlines UK's realigned position on China and Russia

Long-awaited report delves into importance of Britain's relations with allies in Europe, Africa and the Middle East

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier and flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth leaves Portsmouth Harbour for the US. PA
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Britain declared it was prepared for an era of global competition with China, Russia and other rival powers as it relaunched its national security strategy in the Integrated Review Refresh on Monday.

The report explores the UK’s updated vision for confronting multifaceted challenges including terrorism, organised crime, geopolitical turmoil and economic instability.

The refresh, titled Responding to a more contested and volatile world, was ordered last year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the government to reassess its priorities.

The importance of the UK’s partnerships with allies when it comes to meeting shared challenges was a running theme throughout the 60-page document.

The Conservative government laid out its intention to evolve in its approach to Beijing, as it “poses an epoch-defining challenge to the type of international order we want to see, both in terms of security and values”.

The government “will increase our national security protections in those areas where Chinese Communist Party actions pose a threat to our people, prosperity and security”, it added.

In a statement setting out the review, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “I am looking to this difficult and dangerous decade with pride in our country and confidence in our values and with this Integrated Review Refresh as our blueprint.”

Mr Sunak is on a trip to the US and is expected to make a further statement on the document later on Monday.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak disembarks his plane as he arrives in San Diego on Sunday. Photo: Leon Neal

UK 'sliding towards a new Cold War'

Setting out the updated review to MPs in the House of Commons on Monday, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said conclusions of the previous review “have run as a golden strategic thread through all of our activities across defence and deterrence, diplomacy, trade and investment, intelligence, security, international development, science and technology over the last two years”.

Mr Cleverly said the UK’s overall analysis was correct and “our strategic ambition on track”.

“On every continent of the world, the United Kingdom walks taller today than it has done for many years,” he added.

He said that “our most pressing foreign policy priority is the threat that Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine poses for European security”.

The government minister said that, through various initiatives, the UK “will outcompete those who seek to destabilise the international order and undermine global stability”.

Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP and chairman of the parliamentary defence select committee, said the previous Integrated Review saw “swathing cuts” to the UK’s land, sea and air power.

He drew on a finding in the report that said the threat posed to the UK is the greatest it has been in decades to hammer home his call for tougher action.

“We’re sliding towards a new Cold War,” he warned. “Threats are increasing, yet here we are, staying on a peacetime budget.”

Mr Ellwood followed up with a plea to Mr Cleverly for the UK to immediately move to spending 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product on defence.

Responding, Mr Cleverly suggested the UK would stick to its plan to increase defence spending by £5 billion ($6 billion) over the next two years.

‘Russian threats to UK homeland’

It was also noted in the much-anticipated review that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, its continuing occupation of Georgia and its “threats to the UK homeland” warrant a rethink of defence spending.

Russian activities have prompted the government to “recognise the growing importance of deterrence and defence to keep the British people safe and our alliances strong”, the report stated.

The UK will work more closely with allies and build on relations with its fellow members of the Group of Seven to bolster sanctions enforcement and other tools to ensure the economy is better prepared to weather knock-on effects of the geopolitical crisis.

The Sunak administration committed to “surging investment” in the cyber, artificial intelligence, science and technology sectors, pledging to allocate £20 billion a year by 2024/25 to research and development.

‘Credible threats’ from Iran

The threat posed to British citizens and interests by Iran’s hardline regime has increased, the report noted, pointing to the nation’s advancing nuclear programme, destabilising conduct in the region and actions in the UK.

Since last year, Tehran has been behind “15 credible threats” to “kill or kidnap” British or UK-based people, the document said.

Amid stalled talks aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, Britain remains committed to working with allies including the US, France, Germany and Italy, as well as partners in the Middle East, to counter threats from Tehran.

The document said: “We will continue to work to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and to deter its destabilising behaviour, including threats against the UK and UK-based individuals.”

Islamist extremism persists

The UK and its overseas interests remain part of the focus of Islamist extremist groups, the review said. It added that the “threat originating in the Middle East is enduring”.

Clusters of terrorists are expanding in numbers and influence in countries across the Sahel and Afghanistan, meaning the UK government “cannot rule out the possibility of a significant resurgence” of dormant groups.

Closer to home, the threat from self-radicalised people espousing a variety of ideologies “remains high”.

Organised crime groups are seizing new technology to develop new operating models and conceal their identities and actions, the report warned.

“Co-ordination and co-operation between state and non-state actors is likely to continue increasing,” it added.

Britain’s long-held focus on the Middle East and Africa was drawn on to illustrate the government’s prioritisation of issues in “our wider neighbourhood”.

Migratory flows and transnational security threats were cited as two examples of issues that have a ripple effect on places far from the source. The document mentioned the “significant competition for influence” in Middle East and African nations “in the context of the wider geopolitical shifts”.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative has financed major infrastructure projects in African nations under a policy that has alarmed western analysts. The initiative, through which China has lent hundreds of billions of dollars to developing nations, is seen by some as a ruse by the Communist Party to lure governments away from western partnerships.

Turning to the Arctic, the report said competition between international players is on the rise and melting ice “opens up new shipping routes and access to natural resources”. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “disrupted regional co-operation through the Arctic Council”, the report added.

Ukrainian troops and their UK military instructors at a training ground in the south of England. Photo: Gareth Fuller

Strong relations with allies key to success

The refresh also touched on the co-operation between the UK and its allies, stressing this had taken on a “renewed purpose” in light of major geopolitical changes in recent years.

The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021 as British and American troops withdrew from the country “led many to question the resolve and ability of the UK and our allies to deal with international challenges”, the report said. An inquiry by the foreign affairs committee in the UK Parliament concluded that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a “disaster”.

Despite the failings in handling the operation, the refresh claimed the UK and its allies had demonstrated leadership in responding to the Ukraine war.

The West’s response, which includes aid, the training of Ukrainian troops and sanctions against Russia, showed “we remain willing and able to act decisively in defence of our security, an open international order, international law and the fundamental principles of the United Nations (UN) Charter”.

The war in Eastern Europe has caused Nato to increase in political importance and in overall military strength, the report added.

Britain acknowledged its need to step up when it comes to co-ordinating with allies in responding to geopolitical tension. It noted “we understand that allies of the US need to step up our collective contribution to burden-sharing both in the Euro-Atlantic and across geopolitical hotspots including the Gulf and Indo-Pacific”.

The future is green

The importance of the UK’s relations with Gulf states was emphasised in the energy outlook.

The issue of energy security has dominated political conversations across the globe since Russia ordered its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2021.

Britain outlined its eagerness to capitalise on its relationships with Gulf states to increase the production of green energy.

“We are also building updated energy partnerships with Gulf states — the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in particular — to collaborate on renewable energy projects and carbon capture and storage,” it said.

In his first cabinet reshuffle since entering No 10 last October, Mr Sunak last month set up several new government departments including the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero. The office, overseen by Grant Shapps, aims to drive the government’s agenda to establish the UK as a green energy power.

The review noted that UK's net-zero policies “are expected to leverage up to £100 billion of private investment and support up to 480,000 British jobs by 2030".

This will have knock-on benefits for countries who are joining forces with the UK on green energy, it said.

“The activity they drive will also support our international objectives: our investment partnerships with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on renewables and energy R&D [research and development], for example, allow us to deepen these relationships while supporting the UK’s future energy security,” the report added.

Updated: March 13, 2023, 5:03 PM