Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s aggression over Taiwan threaten to create a world “defined by danger, disorder and division”, the UK prime minister has warned.
Rishi Sunak predicted a “difficult and dangerous decade” as his government published a long-awaited update to a major defence, security and foreign policy review on Monday.
The 63-page document signalled that the world faced the biggest risk in decades of security threats escalating, including into “uncontrolled conflict” with nuclear weapons.
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The most immediate security priority was to tackle the threat posed by Russia’s war in Europe, the Integrated Review Refresh said.
But it warned that any future war in the Indo-Pacific, where tensions have increased with China over Taiwan, could have “global consequences greater than the conflict in Ukraine“.
The paper did not change the fundamental assessments of the original review, published in 2021, before Russia‘s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but the language was starker.
Mr Sunak described the Chinese Communist Party as posing an “epoch-defining challenge”. It was previously described only as a “systemic challenge”.
He also set out how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine was an assault on UK and wider European security.
The prime minister explained how the security environment has changed over the past two years, with threats and challenges intensifying.
“Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, weaponisation of energy and food supplies and irresponsible nuclear rhetoric, combined with China’s more aggressive stance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, are threatening to create a world defined by danger, disorder and division – and an international order more favourable to authoritarianism,” he wrote in a foreword.
The prime minister is in San Diego to meet President Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese as part of the AUKUS project to develop nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian navy.
He told Sky News the programme was not purely in reaction to the rising “systemic challenge” from China.
“This partnership represents something much bigger.
“We’re building the next generation of attack submarines with world-beating technology that we will be able to share with each other.
“Not just in the Pacific, but the Atlantic and around the world, it’ll improve security around the world and provide jobs,” he added.
£3bn more for nuclear weapons and submarine fleet
As a result of the evolving threats, Mr Sunak announced an extra £3bn over the next two years for the UK’s nuclear weapons and submarine fleet as well as an extra £1.9bn for ammunition stockpiles.
The document was released ahead of the government’s budget on Wednesday. It set out a plan to increase UK defence spending to 2.5% of GDP, up from just over 2%, but without setting a timeframe.
Warning of future threats, the review said: “There is a growing prospect that the international security environment will further deteriorate in the coming years, with state threats increasing and diversifying in Europe and beyond.
“The risk of escalation is greater than at any time in decades, and an increasing number of advanced weapons systems have been developed and are being tested or adopted.”
It raised concern about the impact of a weakening in a set of arms control agreements between the United States and Russia.
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“The strategic stability mechanisms that helped in the 21st century to mitigate the risks of misunderstanding, miscalculation and unintended escalation have not developed at the pace needed to ensure that competition does not spill over into uncontrolled conflict,” the text said.
It added: “Tensions in the Indo-Pacific are increasing and conflict there could have global consequences greater than the conflict in Ukraine.”
Warnings about Iran and North Korea
The Integrated Review Refresh also cautioned about an increasing threat from Iran, which is advancing a nuclear weapons programme.
In addition, North Korea is “seeking to develop its nuclear capabilities while pursuing regionally destabilising activity through missile tests that threaten its neighbours”.
Much of the text reaffirmed and strengthened findings from the previous review.
But the 2023 update also include a specific section on UK policy towards China, balancing security concerns with a desire to engage with Beijing in areas of mutual interest such as climate change.
This nuanced approached may meet with criticism from certain members of the Conservative Party, including former prime minister Liz Truss, who have been much more hawkish.
‘Grow concerns’ over China’s government
The review talked about “growing concerns” over the actions of the Chinese government, including its strengthening relationship with Russia despite the war in Ukraine.
It also highlighted how China has pursued “rapid and opaque military modernisation with huge new investments, militarised disputed islands in the South China Sea, and refused to renounce the use of force to achieve its objectives with regard to Taiwan“.
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Specifically on Taiwan, the UK reaffirmed its position that tensions over the self-governed island should be settled peacefully.
But Mr Sunak’s review also focused on the reality of Beijing’s size and significance. China accounts for being a fifth of the world economy.
The text said Britain would “engage constructively” with the Chinese government, business and people when it serves the national interest but would take “robust action” to tackle any threats.
Labour was scathing in its response to the announcement on defence spending, noting how the army was still set to shrink to 73,000 troops from around 76,000.
John Healey, the shadow defence secretary said: “The first duty of any government is to defend the country and keep its citizens safe. But the Conservatives have failed to secure Britain’s national defence for the future.”