Global Britain in a Competitive Age

On March 16, the Cabinet Office of the United Kingdom (UK) recently released an integrated review (IR). Titled ‘A Global Britain in a Competitive Age’, it outlines the UK's strategies for security, defense, foreign policy, and development. The IR will be the first comprehensive strategic review of the Post-Brexit era under the vision of a Global Britain. Notably, the strategy places heavy emphasis on science and technology (S&T) and the Indo-pacific.

IR is a periodic government assessment of both the UK’s current capacity and the future strategic environment based on existing trends in the international community. In the IR, Britain recognizes the existing nature of ‘strategic competition’ resulted from the revisionist effort in challenging the existing international order. As it stands, Britain poses the ambition to shape an open international order for the future. But, the reality of Britain’s position as a middle power also concedes the ambitious goal of the UK in attempting to significantly alter strategic competition.

One must first look at what Britain’s national interests are. In the IR, the government shortlisted: sovereignty, security and prosperity as the three core national interests. Sovereignty highlighted the need of not traditional concerns, but rather the need to protect Britain’s democratic process free from coercion or interference. In addition to conventional security concerns and the need to prevent terrorism, this strategy highlighted the need to safeguard Britain’s critical national infrastructures (CNI), an effort to preserve Britain’s democratic institutions and way of life. Prosperity focused on the economic wellbeing of the nation and it views Brexit as an opportunity for Britain to promote international trade on its own terms.

The increasing emphasis on S&T is rather simple for Britain. It will defend Britain’s interest in all five operation domains and grant the upper hand in shaping international order for the future, in the greater context of constant systematic competition. Britain’s emphasis on S&T can be divided into two sections, the need to equip and to protect. For defence, given the existing instability identified, there is an urgent need to better equip Britain’s armed forces. This means an increase in not only conventional nuclear deterrence but also modernizing existing forces. This implies that Britain will provide all branches of its forces with better conventional equipment and the integration of technology, including the use of digital technologies in frontline operations. The package also includes ‎£6.6 billion investment for the MOD research project. Secondly, there is the aspect of protecting Britain’s interest against foreign adversaries. Based on current relations, Britain will adapt ‘own-contribute-access’ approaches to critical CNI development in enhancing British S&T power. Needless to say, given the existing competition in the field of 5G telecommunication, this decision will not be positively received by leading non-western states in this field.

The need for military modernization is recognized by IR and overall positively received. Yet, it should be noted that many of the objectives outlined in the IR were first addressed by Sir Richard Barrons in 2014. Right now, the notion stated in the IR of acquiring strategic superiority through S&T will be unlikely at best. Besides the need to address the defence concern in the cyber domain, the IR did not specify in detail the way in which Britain is planning on enhancing the S&T aspect of the UK's defence capacity. From what was said, praises were given for the emphasis on S&T and urged the need to revolutionize Britain’s existing defence.

The other emphasis on Indo-pacific relations, a highly competitive region and one of high significance to British security, was recognized as a growing concern for the coming decade. This conceptualization of the Indo-Pacific region by nature will create a paradox for London. This paradox was rightfully highlighted, stating a need to compete and cooperate with those who do not share Britain’s value, sometimes even at the same time. This sets the undertone of the overall British vision on the Indo-pacific: a strategic ambiguity. The need to compromise was clearly underpinned in Britain’s Indo-Pacific strategy from the very beginning.

To address the UK's strategic approaches to the Indo-Pacific, China is most certainly the crucial focus. As expected, the IR no longer holds an optimistic view compared with previous reviews (SDSR-15). In the IR, the UK views China as a human rights violator, a systematic competitor, and yet also a crucial trading partner. This puts the UK in an awkward spot and one that will not likely be favourable in the long run. Britain will have to find a way to navigate this relationship, while honoring agreements with Hong Kong, in which Britain promised to protect the BNO passport holder. Additionally, a close trading relationship with China will not be positively perceived by regional allies, but rather as a constraint on Britain. On the other, China does not appreciate anyone meddling in its internal affairs and will likely curve any unwanted interest. Australia is one of the most recent examples. Given the intensification of strategic competition among high-volume trading powers, the UK will need to establish a clearer and more sustainable approach to the nature of its relations with China.

Finally, the military aspect of the UK's Indo-Pacific approach, outlined the need for further multilateral security cooperation with regional allies. Focusing specifically on pursuing the freedom of navigation rights, the UK is hoping to avoid possible choke points and establish a constant military presence within the region. Considering the UK's existing focus on the Euro-Atlantic, the newly heightened focus on the Indo-pacific region will likely put the UK's finite resources to a test. Britain’s reliance on US logistic support for the HMS Queen Elizabeth maiden deployment into the Indo-pacific, a move intended to show the UK's defence posture, which resulted in its failure to produce a carrier strike group, is the very testament of that.

The UK's long-awaited defence review is not satisfactory. It did a fair job in recognizing the existing shortcomings of the UK’s capacity and provided some accommodations to the issues raised. What the IR did was summarize existing strategic challenges, but should have provided a better assessment of the strategic environment for the future, as was intended. That being said, the UK's emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region was much needed. Yet to divide the finite resources into two geostrategic hot spots will present a serious challenge. The IR failed to provide a long-term strategic approach to existing stakeholders in the region. Overall, this review feels very much like a post-great power’s unrealistic hope of reliving its past glory under the new banner of a ‘Global Britain’.