Boris Johnson on Tuesday launched a sweeping review of the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy, including a controversial plan for a 40 per cent increase in the number of Trident nuclear warheads that Britain can stockpile.
The decision to raise the cap on the number of Trident nuclear warheads from 180 to 260 is “in recognition of the evolving security environment”, the review says.
The move — which signals a shift away from Britain’s pursuit of non-proliferation in recent decades — is intended to cement the UK’s status as a nuclear power and a firm US defence ally.
The British prime minister, in a 100-page paper “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”, says the UK will be “a beacon of democratic sovereignty and one of the most influential countries in the world”.
While proclaiming that Britain wanted to be a “soft power superpower” — citing assets such as the BBC and the Premier League — Downing Street also announced plans to beef up its hard power with funding for “next generation” directed energy weapons, and advanced high-speed conventional missiles.
Anti-nuclear campaigners accused the UK of starting a new nuclear arms race. Kate Hudson, general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, pointed out that just last month the US and Russia had extended their nuclear arms control treaty. “As the world wrestles with the pandemic and climate chaos, it beggars belief that our government is opting to increase Britain’s nuclear arsenal,” she said. “Ratcheting up global tensions and squandering our resources is an irresponsible and potentially disastrous approach.”
At the heart of the document is an “Indo-Pacific tilt” — an attempt by Johnson to flesh out his claim that departure from the EU after almost 50 years will allow Britain to refocus on the opportunities and risks of Asia.
It sets out plans for Britain to work with other democratic allies to “co-create” technologies — including in areas such as artificial intelligence, telecoms and data — to challenge the ascendancy of China.
But it lays out a nuanced approach to China, describing the country as a “systemic challenge” but also conceding that the west will have to work with an increasingly “assertive” regime in Beijing in areas such as climate change.
The document, spanning defence, foreign, security and development policy, says Britain will “continue to pursue a positive trading and investment policy with China”.
It also says that Russia “will remain the most active direct threat to the UK”, noting that Britain’s defence budget now stands at 2.2 per cent of gross domestic product, above the spending target set for Nato members.
But critics argue that Johnson’s ambition to boost trade with countries in the Indo-Pacific region is unlikely to compensate for the loss of trade with the EU, which accounts for about 43 per cent of all UK exports.
Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, was also forced to answer questions about how Britain could view itself as a champion of international law, when it was prepared to break it itself.
Last year’s threat by Britain to breach international law in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol — part of the EU/UK Brexit treaty — was criticised by all living former British prime ministers.
But Raab claimed on the BBC that Britain was one of the most admired countries in the world, according to international polling, adding: “I don’t think sometimes we see ourselves in the way the rest of the world sees us.”
Raab also refused to concede the need for a House of Commons vote on the government’s plan to cut its overseas aid budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of GDP, even though the 0.7 per cent figure is enshrined in law.
He claimed it was a “temporary and emergency measure” during the pandemic; the foreign policy paper commits to returning to the higher figure “when the fiscal situation allows”.
Although the paper accepts the need to work with the EU in areas of mutual concern, including climate change, security and biodiversity, the document confirms a break in almost half a century of UK foreign policy.
Other announcements include a new counterterror operations centre to link up spies, police and prosecutors in combating the threat from violent extremists and hostile states.
While the hub will focus on combating Islamic and far-right terrorist threats, it will also help counter the actions of hostile states, following the attempted poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury three years ago. The UK has blamed the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, for the attack.
Johnson intends to use the policy review to emphasise the strength of the UK union, illustrating his claim that Britain is stronger as a single entity than the sum of its four individual parts. The Scottish National party will counter that Johnson took Scotland, unwillingly, out of the EU.