MPs question Johnson's plan for Global Britain

17 March 2021

6:59 AM

17 March 2021

6:59 AM

Boris Johnson still has a journalist’s ear for snappy phrases — levelling up, an oven-ready Brexit, Global Britain. The PM attempted to flesh out one of those headlines on Tuesday with his integrated review — so called because it ties together foreign and defence policy alongside trade and international aid.

The 100-page document — designed to set the course for ‘Global Britain’ over the next ten years — identifies Russia and China as the UK’s two biggest international challenges. The former is described as an ‘active threat’, a dangerous rogue state, while the East Asian country is seen instead as a ‘systemic challenge’. The position is clear: China is the source of a competing values system but one that the UK will have to deal with to ensure future prosperity.

Johnson is keen to see the UK use trade and diplomacy in the East to bolster Britain’s position while countering the Chinese Communist party’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific. During his statement in the Commons on Tuesday afternoon, the PM emphasised that his ambitions really are global, telling MPs his plans went beyond ‘the cramped horizons of a regional foreign policy’.

But how have MPs reacted, especially those influential Tory backbenchers who examine Britain’s role in global politics? The chairs of the two most influential committees on the topic — the foreign affairs and the defence select committees — are in agreement that the document is worthwhile as far is it goes. Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foriegn affairs committee, told an online event that integrated review represented ‘a good start at coherence but there’s an awful lot more we need to see’.

Tobias Ellwood, the defence committee chair, agreed that the review was beneficial but overall had limited value: ‘We are in denial that there is a threat coming from China — but for the rest of the world we have done a pretty good job of assessing where we are’. Ellwood was critical about plans to slim down the military while beefing up the MoD’s technological firepower, arguing that the push towards drones, AI and autonomous weapons was a mistake. ‘We can’t be scared of putting boots on the ground,’ he told the event. Instead, the military should have a central role in expanding British influence by helping with global aid and emergency response, a job that none of these new technologies could achieve.

The committee chair also set up a former sparring partner, Dominic Cummings, ahead of his appearance before the science and technology committee on Wednesday morning, suggesting the PM’s ex-adviser had been pushing for this wrongheaded, tech-first approach. On the UK’s growing nuclear arsenal, Ellwood again struck a note of caution, suggesting that the integrated review had engaged in ‘inflammatory’ and ‘dangerous talk’ when it suggested that the UK would be prepared to use nuclear weapons first if attacked by chemical and biological weapons.

There was also frustration with the European Union, with Ellwood pointing to the fact that Italy had now explicitly signed up to China’s one belt one road initiative, a policy designed to spread Chinese trade and influence across the globe. The committee chair argued that Beijing was ‘ensnaring’ weaker countries, adding that ‘now the EU has signed a trade deal with the EU as well’.

When asked whether the UK would have been able to change its broader foriegn policy when part of the EU, Tugendhat suggested that Britain was able to be more nimble on the international stage: ‘There is a distinction between the politics of difference and the legal elements of difference: legally we could have done a lot of it, politically I think not’.

Those involved in critiquing the UK’s foriegn policy are keen to see Britain spell out a comprehensive China strategy that would lay out how the British state should deal with Beijing. The integrated review is not that strategy. Charles Parton, an influential China watcher who has worked with Tugendhat’s China Research Group, has suggested the creation of a single document — a  definitive China strategy — that would clearly lay out the principles by which the different arms of the British state can work together to counter Chinese influence. On the subject of the integrated review, Parton told me: ‘I give the government the marks because they are fully committed to a rethink, I give them the marks because they’re working on it in concrete ways, but it’s too early to expect a proper China strategy to be up and ready. Despite Covid and Brexit, which are clearly taking up a lot of bandwidth, there are certainly many more people in Whitehall working on China, which is good.’

Tugendhat questioned whether a full rethink would be possible, saying: ‘I do recognise that the government is clearly looking at the economic problems [a break with China] poses. People in government have one view and people outside have a different view. I quite understand the pressure that the Treasury puts on policy making.’ Ellwood agreed: ‘There is just a sense of fear that we don’t want to upset this economic powerhouse.’

Neither will be surprised then to hear that the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab recently told officials that he ‘squarely believes we ought to be trading liberally around the world. If we restrict it to countries with ECHR-level standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future.’ Such a sentiment will only anger Tory China sceptics who came close to defeating the government on the genocide amendment to the Trade Bill — an amendment designed to block any trade deal with China over its treatment of Muslim Uyghurs. That amendment is returning to the Commons on Monday — expect to see more Conservative frustration at the UK’s foreign policy next week.

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