The Prime Minister insisted the Government’s long-awaited Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy offered a “clear-sighted” approach for dealing with Beijing
However, he faced criticism in the Commons from a series of senior Tory MPs as the 100-page review document called for a “positive trade and investment relationship” with China with co-operation on tackling climate change.
While it described Russia as the “most acute threat” to UK it was more measured in its language about China, saying it offered a “systemic challenge” to Britain’s security, values and prosperity.
Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was “worried” about adopting such a mild designation given the “terrible events” in Hong Kong and Xinjiang province, where the government is accused of genocide against the Uighur minority.
Julian Lewis, the chairman of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, said it was a return to the “grasping naivety of the Cameron-Osborne years” when the UK ostentatiously courted Chinese investment.
And Tobias Ellwood the chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, called for a “Fulton Missouri moment” – a reference to Winston Churchill’s 1946 “iron curtain” speech – to “finally call out China for the geostrategic threat that it is”.
In response, Mr Johnson said Britain’s trading relationship with Beijing was worth some £81 billion and that, as the world’s second-largest economy, China remained a “fact of our lives”.
“Those who call for a new cold war on China or for us to sequester our economy entirely from China … are, I think, mistaken,” he said.
“We have a balance to strike, we needed to have a clear-eyed relationship with China. We will take tough measures as I have said to call out China for what they’re doing in Xinjiang.”
Mr Johnson also came under fire from his own side over the cut to the international aid budget, with former development secretary Andrew Mitchell warning it may be “unlawful”.
The Prime Minister said he was committed to returning to spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid “when the fiscal situation allows”.
– Lifts the cap on Britain’s stockpile of Trident nuclear warheads from 180 to 260 in response to the “evolving security environment”.
– Sets out the UK’s aim to be a “science and tech superpower” by 2030, with the ability to “monitor, protect and defend our interests” in space and ensuring cutting-edge defensive and offensive cyber capabilities.
– States that tackling climate change and biodiversity loss is the Government’s “number one international priority” in 2021 and beyond.
Overall, the strategy acknowledges the risks posed by increased competition between states – including a more assertive China – along with terrorism, organised crime, climate change and the “realistic possibility” of another pandemic.
The increased focus on the Indo-Pacific region is an acknowledgement of Chinese influence, as well as the importance of countries including India and Japan.
The shift will be underlined by the deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group to the region on its maiden operational mission later this year and a visit by Mr Johnson to India in April.
The review paints a picture of a “deteriorating security environment” in the world with the proliferation of chemical and nuclear weapons, advanced conventional weapons and “novel military technologies” increasing “the risk and intensity of conflict”.
It is “likely” that a terrorist group will launch a successful chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) attack by 2030, the report said.
In a sign that defence spending will shift away from traditional, and expensive, military hardware, the report noted “the advantages offered by high-tech capabilities may be eroded by affordable, easily-available, low-tech threats such as drones and improvised explosive devices”.
However, military chiefs have acknowledged that investment in the future battlespaces of space and cyber will mean cutting back on some traditional “industrial age” capabilities.
A Ministry of Defence paper to be published next week is expected to set plans to cut the size of the Army by about 10,000, reduce the number of Challenger 2 main battle tanks and take the Warrior infantry fighting vehicle out of service altogether.