Britain Seeks to Counter Threats from Russia, China Amid Economic Constraints

Britain has published an updated defense strategy, prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the challenge posed by China, as Britain tries to balance strategic threats with financial constraints at home. 

The document, “Integrated Review Refresh 2023,” updates a previous strategy review issued two years ago.

Ukraine invasion 

The new document, published on Monday, “forces a refocus on European security,” David Lawrence, a research fellow at London-based Chatham House, a research group, told VOA.

“In the original review, there was this emphasis on the Indo-Pacific tilt. … It seemed like the U.K. wanted to move away from European security being its main sphere of influence,” he said. 

“That has completely changed, because [Russia’s invasion of Ukraine] has forced the U.K. to acknowledge that our most immediate threats come much closer to home. And actually, that the U.K. is in a really strong position — as the last year has shown — to provide military support to allies in Europe, particularly on Europe’s eastern front,” Lawrence said. 

Defense spending

The defense review was published the same week as the government’s annual budget, or the Spring Statement. Britain is forecast to have the lowest economic growth this year of all members of the G-7 group of rich nations. 

Nevertheless, Jeremy Hunt, chancellor of the Exchequer, announced Wednesday an increase in defense spending over the coming decade. On top of Britain’s $58 billion annual defense budget, Hunt committed an additional $11 billion over the next five years. 

An allocated $2.3 billion will be spent over the next two years to replenish ammunition stocks depleted through military aid given to Ukraine. Britain is the second-largest donor of military aid to Kyiv behind the United States, giving $2.8 billion worth of equipment in 2022. 

Britain’s annual defense spending currently stands at around 1.9% of GDP. The review reiterated Britain’s ambition to increase that figure to 2.5% of gross domestic product. The target of meeting that goal by 2030, however, has been removed.

The government on Wednesday said defense spending would hit 2.25% of GDP by 2025.

‘Second-rate’ economy

“If the U.K. really wants to be global Britain, wants to be a force on the world stage, wants to be at the front of the pack when it comes to responding to Russia or to China, then we need more money to do that,” Lawrence said.

“At the moment, we’re trying to run a first-rate military, which is up there competing with the U.S. and China and Russia, on a second-rate economy, because we’re lagging behind many other of our peers at the moment,” he said.

China challenge

In a foreword to the defense review, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said China poses “an epoch-defining challenge.” 

“It’s a country with fundamentally different values to ours and its behavior over the past few years has been concerning — more authoritarian at home, more assertive overseas,” Sunak told reporters, following a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in San Diego, California this week. 

Sunak stopped short of labeling China a “threat,” despite pressure from the more hawkish members in his party.

Lawrence said Britain is trying to strike a delicate balance.

“China’s policy can change, and no one knows whether or not China will invade Taiwan. Whether or not China will continue down this more assertive path. I think the government wants to keep its options open,” he said. China considers self-administered Taiwan a wayward province.

“And I think the U.K. also recognizes that China will be an important country to work with on addressing global challenges, not just climate change, but thinking about the transformative impact of artificial intelligence, the possibility of future diseases or pandemics. Whatever your challenge is, China is going to be an important player, so you need to think carefully about how to engage with it,” Lawrence said. 

AUKUS

Britain also allocated an additional $3.6 billion to support the delivery of three nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian navy, as part of the AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and United States) Indo-Pacific defense pact.

Beijing said the deal, which was finalized by the three allies in San Diego, put the region on a “dangerous path.” 


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