The UK says it wants to shape a world where democracies can thrive, but be ready for one marked by increased conflict and division, with China seen as the biggest state threat to economic security and another pandemic regarded as a “realistic possibility”.

The most significant shake-up of UK foreign, defence and security policy since the Cold War also described Russia as “the most acute threat” to the country’s security.

Britain must, the government said, become better at detecting and deterring a range of attacks by states, terrorists and criminals in a grey zone under the threshold of war, but which risk igniting a real conflict.

The Integrated Review also warned of a growing threat from nuclear weapons, noting that some states are “significantly increasing and diversifying their nuclear arsenals”.

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In response to the “evolving security environment”, the UK plans to reverse a reduction in its stockpile of nuclear warheads. A new cap will rise to 260 from 180.

The 114-page document outlines Britain’s goals and challenges across defence, security, foreign affairs and development. It said or set out:

  • Tackling climate change and the loss of biodiversity is the top international priority
  • A “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific region focused on strengthening diplomatic and trade links
  • The precondition for “Global Britain” is the safety of British citizens and the security of the Euro-Atlantic region, which remains the prime focus of UK security
  • An ambition to make the UK a “science and tech superpower” by 2030
  • Shaping the international order of the future, with rules to protect democratic values in the real world as well as in cyberspace and space
  • Building resilience in the UK to future emergencies
  • Increased funding for spy agencies as part of efforts to counter the threat from terrorism

The terrorist threat is still described as “major”, with the main sources coming from Islamist, Northern Ireland-related far-right, far-left, anarchist and single-issue terrorism.

The review warns it is likely a terrorist group will launch a successful chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack in the coming nine years.

Boris Johnson, unveiling his vision for 2030, said Britain must be willing to adapt to a changing reality, with a focus on enhancing security at home and overseas, as well as boosting science and technology capabilities.

“Open and democratic societies like the UK must demonstrate they are match-fit for a more competitive world,” he said in a foreword to the Integrated Review.

“To be open, we must also be secure. Protecting our people, our homeland and our democracy is the first duty of any government, so I have begun the biggest programme of investment in defence since the end of the Cold War.”

This is based on a £16.5bn increase in defence spending announced last November.

The prime minister added: “Keeping the UK’s place at the leading edge of science and technology will be essential to our prosperity and competitiveness in the digital age.”

Moving to counter mounting criticism about a cut to Britain’s overseas aid spending because of the economic hit from coronavirus, Mr Johnson said the UK would return to spending 0.7% of national income on overseas aid, after reducing it to 0.5% – a move critics say fundamentally undermines the concept of “global Britain”.

“The UK will remain a world leader in international development and we will return to our commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on development when the fiscal situation allows,” the prime minister said.

“And we will maintain the other vital instruments of our influence overseas, such as our global diplomatic network and the British Council, driving forward campaigns for girls’ education and religious and media freedom.”

The review featured four themes: geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts; systemic competition; rapid technological change; and transnational challenges such as climate change and global health risks.

It described a “realistic optimum scenario” as an “international order in which these trends can be managed effectively, with nations coming together to revive multilateral cooperation, strengthen global governance and harness the opportunities ahead for growth and prosperity”.

The review warned though that the UK “must also prepare for the possibility that the post-COVID international order will be increasingly contested and fragmented, reducing global cooperation and making it harder to protect our interests and values”.

China is described as a “systemic competitor”, with its authoritarian system at odds with the values of the UK and other liberal democracies.

At the same time, its economic strength makes the country a valuable trading partner for the UK as it looks to enhance ties in the Indo-Pacific region after Brexit.

The review sets out this balancing act, describing how the UK seeks to continue its relationship with China while at the same time standing up for democratic values and strengthening resilience to security threats.

“China’s growing international stature is by far the most significant geopolitical factor in the world today, with major implications for British values and interests and for the structure and shape of the international order,” the review said.

“The fact that China is an authoritarian state, with different values to ours, presents challenges for the UK and our allies. China will contribute more to global growth than any other country in the next decade with benefits to the global economy. China and the UK both benefit from bilateral trade and investment, but China also presents the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security.”

It added: “The significant impact of China’s military modernisation and growing international assertiveness within the Indo‑Pacific region and beyond will pose an increasing risk to UK interests.”

In the section on transnational challenges, the review predicted that infectious disease outbreaks are likely to be more frequent over the next decade.

“Another novel pandemic remains a realistic possibility. On current trends, global deaths related to antimicrobial resistance will rise from 700,000 to 20 million per year by 2050,” it warns.

The document also described how the UK had to improve its ability to push back against attacks by hostile foreign states like Russia, China and Iran in the grey zone.

“We will take a more robust approach in response to the deteriorating global security environment, adapting to systemic competition and a wider range of state and non-state threats enabled by technology,” it said.

“In doing so, we must improve our ability to detect, disrupt, defend against and deter the threats we face in the physical world and in cyberspace.

“These may be state threats above and below the traditional threshold of war, transnational security challenges such as terrorism and serious and organised crime (SOC), or a combination of these.

“We will demonstrate that we are able and willing to respond.”

(c) Sky News 2021: Integrated Review: Britain warned of threat from China and risk of another pandemic in sweeping defence review

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