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This explainer looks at the 2023 ‘refresh’ of the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.
It sets out why the 2021 Integrated Review was updated, the ways in which the 2023 Integrated Refresh is different, and how much spending it promises. The explainer also looks in particular at what the 2023 Refresh says about Europe, China and the Indo-Pacific.
What is the IR refresh?
Published in 2021, the original Integrated Review (IR21) represents a comprehensive strategic framework that defines the UK government’s vision of Britain’s role in the world and how this should feed into security, defence, development, and foreign policy.
In September 2022, the then Prime Minister, Liz Truss, announced that the Integrated Review would be updated to ensure that the UK was ‘keeping pace’ with the evolving threats of aggressive states such as Russia.
The Integrated Review Refresh (IR23), published on 13 March 2023, builds on the objectives of IR21 by providing an updated assessment of the international environment confronting the UK up to 2030 and beyond.
What was in IR21?
IR21’s publication marked a flagship moment in British post-Brexit history. Following years of uncertainty, it provided the first clear, comprehensive account of how ‘Global Britain’ would approach defence, development, diplomacy, and security in a ‘more competitive and fluid international environment’.
The competitive and fluid international environment the document cited referred to the threats emerging from hostile states such as Iran, Russia and China. Russia was described as ‘the most acute threat’ to British interests, while China was described as a ‘systemic competitor’ with whom the UK would seek to compete and cooperate to tackle various transnational issues such as climate change.
“Comparing the documents, there is clearly a difference in tone. While IR21 was at times boosterish, IR23 is sober and realistic.”
IR21 emphasised that the UK would, post-Brexit, seek to play an active role in sustaining the international order, working with like-minded partners and flexible groupings to ensure it was at the forefront of efforts to protect human rights and uphold global norms.
Significantly, IR21 recognised that the Euro-Atlantic region was critical for UK’s security and prosperity and would consequently receive the bulk of the UK’s security focus.
However, the document is perhaps best known for invoking the notion of the Indo-Pacific tilt. Here, the government’s ambition was to become the ‘European partner with the broadest, most integrated presence in support of mutually beneficial trade, shared security and values’ in the region.
IR21 appears aware of the UK’s decreased hard power (i.e., military) potential, recognising a need to burden-share in the defence and security space.
Nevertheless, IR21 states that the UK remains globally influential due to its soft power potential, with the document describing the country as ‘a soft power superpower’ based on the UK’s prowess in Science and Technology (S&T) and its historic cultural and diplomatic assets.
Why is it being refreshed?
IR23 updates the priorities of IR21 to ‘reflect changes in the global context since Integrated Review 2021’. It stresses that IR21 was a response to a ‘world moving towards greater competition and multipolarity’ – i.e. global power being distributed between several major nation states – but that the ‘transition into a multipolar, fragmented and contested world’ has arrived more quickly than originally anticipated.
Important changes include the shifts in the distribution of global power in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the US/UK withdrawal from Afghanistan; intensifying systemic competition with China; and the development of new partnerships, such as the trilateral AUKUS agreement to develop submarines and advanced technologies with Australia and the US and the UK-Italy-Japan the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) partnership to develop next generation fighter aircraft.
It also provides an opportunity to respond to some of the criticisms of IR21. Two interrelated criticisms were the ‘Europe-shaped hole’ and the credibility of greater British engagement in the Indo-Pacific.
Other than stating that the UK would cooperate with the EU ‘where our interests coincide’, references to the bloc largely referred to the UK’s exit. This coupled with the notion of a ‘tilt’ lead some to suggest the UK was giving the impression of turning its back on Europe, which risked undermining its leading position in NATO and overextension in a region thousands of miles away.
What are the key features of IR23?
IR23 builds on the vision outlined within IR21, with the UK’s core national interests still described as the sovereignty, security, and prosperity of the British people. However, comparing the documents, there is clearly a difference in tone. While IR21 was at times boosterish, IR23 is sober and realistic.
The notion of ‘Global Britain’, which for so long characterised the UK’s attempts to define its role outside of the EU, is absent in IR23. In its place, the document directly addresses the criticism that the previous review lacked substantial references to the EU and now suggests that the UK will look to work more closely with the EU and European partners.
This is clearly seen in IR23’s commitments for the UK to contribute towards collective European security, particularly through the Joint Expeditionary Force and NATO, and to pursue opportunities for values-based cooperation.
IR23 argues that the Indo-Pacific tilt has been achieved, and that this was mainly fulfilled through non-military means. Economic engagement, through the UK’s application to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc (CPTPP) or the free trade agreements signed with states like Australia, alongside diplomatic engagements with the likes of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been important elements of the tilt.
The significance of Atlantic-Pacific Partnerships should also not be overlooked. The rhetorical move to connect the Euro-Atlantic with the Indo-Pacific reflects the UK’s ambition to integrate and solidify its approach to the two regions, likely defining UK foreign policy for decades to come.
“Ukraine unsurprisingly features heavily, with a total of 56 mentions in the document.”
The trilateral AUKUS and GCAP agreements are emblematic of such an approach, fusing defence-industrial collaboration and enhanced security cooperation in the name of protecting the open international order through multi-decade partnerships.
Partnerships like these are also indicative of the government’s continued ambition to use the UK’s S&T prowess as a source of national power. Building on the recently published Science and Technology Framework, IR23 re-emphasises the importance of a healthy S&T ecosystem for enhancing British influence, supporting allies and partners, and increasing British resilience.
How much is being spent?
The IR refresh dedicates £5bn of additional funding to defence over two years, in addition to a 2020 review which increased defence spending by £24bn over four years and the £560m pledged by the government to replenish stockpiles in the Autumn Statement 2022.
As a result, the UK’s spending on defence will reach 2.2% of GDP this year and the review sets an ambition to invest 2.5% of GDP on defence ‘as fiscal and economic circumstances allow’. This will ensure that the UK continues to spend a higher share of GDP on defence than most of its NATO partners.
This has been a particularly contested area of the IR refresh.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was reported to have been pressing the Chancellor to increase to defence budget by between £8-£11bn over the next two years. He argued that the MoD is particularly vulnerable to inflation pressures due to the need to spend on hardware and infrastructure.
Despite Ben Wallace supposedly being ‘delighted’ with the £5bn sum, it has been criticised by others. Lord Dannatt, former head of the British Army, declared that the amount was ‘the parsimony of the 1930s all over again’ and ‘very dangerous for European security’.
A large part of this criticism is targeted at the way the £5bn is being spent, as £3bn is allotted to the nuclear defence industry and £1.9bn to replenish munitions stockpiles and weapons. It is argued that the review fails to ensure that UK land forces receive sufficient investment, which will continue to prevent modernisation and threaten the ability of the British army to deploy an effective force in continental Europe if required. This has been exacerbated by the announcement in a 2021 Ministry of Defence command paper that the target of 82,000 army personnel set in 2015 would be scrapped and that instead, the Army headcount will be reduced from 76,300 to 72,500 by 2025 .
However, in the 2023 Spring Budget it was announced that there would be a further £6bn increase in defence spending over the next five years, in addition to the £5bn promised in IR23. A defence command paper, which is expected to be released in June, will outline in more detail how these funds will be distributed through the armed forces.
What are the plans for Europe?
Building on IR21 in a more explicit manner, Europe and the wider Euro-Atlantic area are clearly highlighted as the UK’s overriding priority within IR23. Across the board, the Refresh seeks to present the UK as an engaged, collaborative, and constructive partner in Europe.
Ukraine unsurprisingly features heavily, with a total of 56 mentions in the document. IR23 re-emphasises the British commitment to Ukraine, noting that ‘our collective security is intrinsically linked to the outcome of the conflict‘ As such, confronting Russia remains the most pressing national security priority in the short-to-medium term, and the UK has pledged at least £2.3bn to Ukraine in 2023/24.
IR23 is much more detailed in describing how the UK will work with other European states. France is described as one of the UK’s most important historical allies. The document notes the UK’s intention to develop further the bilateral relationship on the back of the UK-France summit, such as co-operating to ensure that there is a persistent presence of European allies in the Indo-Pacific.
Regarding the so-called small boats crisis, IR23 highlights the UK’s ambition to build on its cooperation with France and work with other European partners like Albania to prevent asylum seekers from embarking on perilous Channel crossings.
“Rhetoric towards China is sharper in the most recent review”
In perhaps the most significant development from 2021, IR23 signals the UK’s intent to consolidate the recent rapprochement (i.e., the Windsor Framework) with the EU and improve its cooperation. According to the document, the UK will use the new momentum to maximise the potential of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement and cooperate in areas of shared interest, including defence collaboration with PESCO (the EU’s permanent structure for cooperation on defence capability).
Finally, it is notable that IR23 commits the UK to supporting the development of the European Political Community (EPC), whose conference the UK will host in 2024. A brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron, the EPC provides a format for 44 European countries to negotiate on a range of questions, including security and energy, without a formal institutional structure. The relatively informal, flexible structure for European cooperation seems to align with the UK’s preferred way of engaging with Europe.
What are the plans for China?
Rhetoric towards China is sharper in the most recent review, with IR23 stating that China under the Chinese Communist Party ‘poses an epoch-defining and system challenge’ on account of increasing concerns over the military, diplomatic and economic activity of the CCP over the last few years.
While this falls short of calls from some Conservative MPs to describe China as ‘a threat’, it is harsher than IR21 which designates China a systemic challenge and IR23 also makes several mentions of the stability in Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait, which were absent in the previous review.
Taiwan has been governed independently of China since 1949; however, Beijing sees the island as a part of Chinese territory. There is increasing tension in the region and there is growing concern that Russia’s war in Ukraine could embolden China to try and invade Taiwan.
“The last Integrated Review set out the UK’s intention to pursue deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific”
If Beijing is able to seize control of Taiwan and the Taiwan strait, this would have serious security implications for the UK and Europe, as 40% of Europe’s trade passes through the strait. Furthermore, Taiwan produces the majority of the world’s semiconductors and over 90% of advanced microchips – the critical technology for modern computation.
IR23 also announces a doubling in funding for China-facing capabilities, seeking to increase knowledge of and expertise on China as well as Mandarin language skills across UK government departments.
A National Protective Security Authority will also be created to share expert intelligence-led advice between government and business in sensitive sectors of the economy, such as critical infrastructure, emerging technology and academia.
Nonetheless, IR23 also recognises the need for cooperation and collaboration since China is an incredibly important player ‘on almost every global issue’, meaning that it is very likely that the UK will be impacted by the actions China takes on climate change (it is the largest investor in sustainable energy and the largest emitter of carbon) as well as on global health and pandemic preparedness.
Together, the approach is one that seeks to protect the UK’s interests while also seeking to stabilise relations with China through direct engagement with Beijing both bilaterally and in international settings.
What are the plans for the Indo-Pacific tilt?
The last Integrated Review set out the UK’s intention to pursue deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific through stronger diplomatic and trading ties with other states in the region. Since the publication of IR21, the UK has achieved dialogue partner status with the ASEAN; reached final negotiations to accede to the CPTPP; and advanced the ‘AUKUS’ agreement with the US and Australia .
IR23 builds on this and seeks to embed long-term engagement in the Indo-Pacific, suggesting that ‘the prosperity and security of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific are inextricably linked’, while also using the past tense to stress that the Indo-Pacific tilt has already been ‘achieved’.
Part of the tilt’s consolidation will be achieved by developing the UK’s network of Atlantic-Pacific partnerships. This includes moving the AUKUS partnership to the implementation phase (namely, equipping Australia with nuclear-powered submarine capability); providing further investment to the GCAP programme; and continuing cooperation with the Five Eyes grouping, the intelligence-sharing alliance between the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US.
The review notes that high-end defence-industrial collaboration (i.e., AUKUS and GCAP) will allow the UK to collectively balance against adversaries to preserve an open and stable international order. Moreover, these partnerships provide important commercial outlets for British science and technology expertise.
IR23 indicates the UK’s desire to strengthen relations with the Indo-Pacific powers with which the UK already has close relationships with, such as Australia, Japan, and the US, in order to renew arms control and counter-proliferation. Additionally, the review also states the UK’s wish to align with other partners pursuing Indo-Pacific strategies, including ASEAN, Canada, the EU, France, Germany, India, and the Republic of Korea.
Particularly significant for the Indo-Pacific is IR23’s call for the UK to extend its cooperation to ‘those who do not necessarily share our values and our perspective’ and those middle powers who do not want to be drawn into a zero-sum competition between new Cold War-like blocs. The review sees deepening relationships with these powers, countries like Malaysia or Vietnam, as essential if the world is to tackle shared problems like climate change.
By Tom Howe and Peter Jurkovic, researchers, UK in a Changing Europe.