Without actually referring to China as a threat and in what was quite probably the most coherent foreign policy speech delivered by a British Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher, Rishi Sunak told his Mansion House audience at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet last evening that not only was the “so-called golden era of relations with China over” but also that “naïve ideas that trade would lead to political reform” were as well.
Rishi Sunak used this well written and much appreciated speech to rebuke previous UK government approach to China saying that he would reject short-termism or wishful thinking and that, as other nations are now doing, Britain needed to take a longer term view on China and in so doing recognising that China poses a systematic challenge to our values and interests – a challenge which he suggested “grows more acute as it [China] moves toward even greater authoritarianism”.
Great words and deeds but what do they really mean for us? We recognise of course that Foreign, Defence and Security policies are supposed to be fully aligned and we had in part been led to believe that whet eventually emerged from the ‘Integrated Review’ in 2021 and which the PM again confirmed last evening would be updated in the New Year, might begin to achieve this. Sadly, that has not been the case and of all the visible faults within the IR, foreign policy objectives all but ignored the need for stronger defence to support aims., some of which were totally inappropriate.
Thus, in light of the Mansion House speech last night and if the words spoken are to have some real meaning, the implication is surely that we must now formally recognise that no matter whether affordable or not, we must radically change our attitude and approach to spending on defence and security and begin to reverse two decades of cuts that have left our armed forces all but unfit for purpose.
Of course, no nation can begin to undo twenty years of neglect and political mistakes in defence policy in anything less than ten years. It has, for instance, taken China thirty years to build defence capabilities that can now be recognised as posing a potentially serious threat to our perceived values and those of our western allies.
We have been living a pretence for too long and walking with our eyes closed. We are but a minnow and nothing that the Prime Minister said last evening will change that. But if it opens our eyes to reality and change, if the PM was being open and honest in accepting that we need to change our approach then he will have achieved something that no British Prime Minister has done since Margaret Thatcher.
Many will of course refer to believe that it is easy to speak such words but impossible for a nation such as ours to turn them into deeds. They may well be right and with our now limited ability to trade internationally let alone manufacture more of what we consume and need, I doubt that our adversaries will lose any sleep over the words that the PM spoke last evening. But to his credit, unlike his past four predecessors, Rishi Sunak provided a level of honesty that was as refreshing as it was also realistic albeit that it did not go as far as accepting that the era of globalisation is yet dead.
Let us sincerely hope that even if the present administration has only two years in office that these are used wisely and that a process of change begins. I am not holding out that much hope but I do appreciate the recognition by Rishi Sunak that we need to change our attitude and approach. No longer should string defence be a matter of choice it should be the first and foremost act of good government.
The Speech by Rishi Sunak as delivered at the Mansion House last evening:
My Lord Mayor, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Whether by virtue of history or accident of geography, our country has always looked out to the world.
I was born in Southampton…
… a port city the Victorians called the gateway to the world…
… where the Mayflower set sail…
… where Spitfires were built and allied troops embarked on D-Day.
And just as we look out to the world, so the world often looks to Britain.
Like many others, my grandparents came to the UK, via East Africa and the Indian subcontinent… and made their lives here.
In recent years, we’ve welcomed thousands of people…
…from Hong Kong, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.
We’re a country that stands up for our values…
… that defends democracy by actions not just words…
A country that commits not just our resources but our ingenuity to better the lives of others, and ourselves.
Ukrainian flags have flown over almost every town and city on these islands for the past nine months.
No one told people to put them there.
They felt moved to show solidarity with people they’ve never met, in a country most have never even visited…
…to show their faith in fairness, freedom and the rule of law.
These values are constant.
They are set in stone.
But as the world evolves, so does our application of those values.
As Edmund Burke argued, circumstances and context are everything.
And today the pace of geopolitical change is intensifying.
Our adversaries and competitors plan for the long term.
After years of pushing at the boundaries, Russia is challenging the fundamental principles of the UN Charter.
China is conspicuously competing for global influence using all the levers of state power.
In the face of these challenges, short-termism or wishful thinking will not suffice.
We can’t depend on Cold War arguments or approaches, or mere sentimentality about our past.
So, we will make an evolutionary leap in our approach.
This means being stronger in defending our values and the openness on which our prosperity depends.
It means delivering a stronger economy at home, as the foundation of our strength abroad.
And it means standing up to our competitors, not with grand rhetoric but with robust pragmatism.
We will do all this…
…not only through our diplomatic expertise, science and tech leadership, and investment in defence and security…
…but by dramatically increasing the quality and depth of our partnerships with like-minded allies around the world.
We will set out more detail in the updated Integrated Review in the new year…
…including how we’ll work with friends in the Commonwealth, the US, the Gulf states, Israel and others.
But tonight, I’d like to describe how we’re already making this evolutionary leap in three other places.
First, as we stand by Ukraine, we’re also reinvigorating our European relationships to tackle challenges like security and illegal migration.
Second, we’re taking a longer-term view on China, strengthening our resilience and protecting our economic security.
And third, we’re seizing the huge opportunities on offer in the Indo-Pacific by building deep and long-lasting partnerships.
In Kyiv, I just saw how Russia’s focus is shifting from bruising encounters on the battlefield to brutalising the civilian population.
It was written in the scarred buildings and the piles of rubble lining the streets…
…in the stories of the first responders I met from liberated Kherson…
…from the torture chambers to the booby traps left in children’s toys.
As the world comes together to watch the World Cup…
…I saw how an explosive device had been hidden inside a child’s football – seeking to make it a weapon of war.
It defies belief.
So be in no doubt, we will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.
Next year we will maintain or even increase our military aid.
And we will provide new support for air defence, to protect the Ukrainian people and the critical infrastructure they rely on.
By protecting Ukraine, we protect ourselves.
With the fall of Kabul, the pandemic, the economic strife, some said the West was weak.
In fact, our response in Ukraine has shown the depth of our collective resolve.
Sweden and Finland are joining NATO.
Germany is increasing its defence spending.
Partners as far afield as Australia, Japan and South Korea are standing with us.
We’ve developed an entirely new sanctions model.
And through NATO and the Joint Expeditionary Force we’re guarding against further Russian aggression…
…whether in the east or the High North.
We’re also evolving our wider post-Brexit relations with Europe…
…including bilaterally and engaging with the new European Political Community.
But this is not about greater alignment.
Under my leadership we’ll never align with EU law.
Instead, we’ll foster respectful, mature relationships with our European neighbours on shared issues like energy and illegal migration…
…to strengthen our collective resilience against strategic vulnerabilities.
And that brings me to my second point.
We also need to evolve our approach to China.
Let’s be clear, the so-called “golden era” is over…
…along with the naïve idea that trade would automatically lead to social and political reform.
But nor should we rely on simplistic Cold War rhetoric.
We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests…
…a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism.
Instead of listening to their people’s protests, the Chinese Government has chosen to crack down further…
…including by assaulting a BBC journalist.
The media – and our parliamentarians – must be able to highlight these issues without sanction…
…including calling out abuses in Xinjiang – and the curtailment of freedom in Hong Kong.
Of course, we cannot simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs…
…to global economic stability or issues like climate change.
The US, Canada, Australia, Japan and many others understand this too.
So together we’ll manage this sharpening competition, including with diplomacy and engagement.
Much of this is about dramatically improving our resilience, particularly our economic security.
That’s why we created new powers under the National Security and Investment Act…
…it’s why we used them this month to block the sale of Newport Wafer Fab.
It’s why we took action on 5G.
And it’s why we’re ending global dependence on authoritarian regimes – starting with Russian gas.
Now we’re also acting to deepen our ties in the Indo-Pacific – the third example of where we’re evolving our approach.
Before I came into politics, like many of you, I invested in businesses around the world… and the opportunity in the Indo-Pacific is compelling.
Take Indonesia, which I visited just this month.
It’s a young, vibrant country…
…the world’s third largest democracy…
…poised to become a top 5 global economy.
By 2050, the Indo-Pacific will deliver over half of global growth …
…compared with just a quarter from Europe and North America combined.
That’s why we’re joining the Trans-Pacific trade deal, the CPTPP…
…delivering a new FTA with India…
…and pursuing one with Indonesia.
But in the Indo-Pacific economics and security are indivisible.
60% of global trade passes through regional shipping routes…
…including choke points like the straits of Malacca.
It’s in our interests to keep these trade lines open.
That’s why we joined the Five Power Defence Arrangements with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore half a century ago.
And it’s why we’re evolving new long-term defence, industrial and technological partnerships…
…like AUKUS with Australia and the US…
…and the Future Combat Air System with Italy and Japan.
By deepening these ties we’ll help protect the arteries and ventricles of the global economy…
…supporting security and prosperity – both at home in our European neighbourhood and in the Indo-Pacific.
My Lord Mayor,
As we meet here tonight, the people of Ukraine are hunkered down in freezing temperatures, on the front line of the fight for freedom.
In Iran, women are displaying the most humbling and breath-taking courage…
…refusing to bow to thuggish, theocratic control.
And tomorrow Iran’s football team will again stand with them in solidarity – facing unknown consequences as a result.
Freedom and openness have always been the most powerful forces for progress.
But they have never been achieved by standing still.
As Henry Kissinger wrote:
…during periods of crisis… whether war, technological change or economic dislocation… management of the status quo may be the riskiest choice of all.
Under my leadership we won’t choose the status quo.
We will do things differently.
We will evolve…
… anchored always by our enduring belief in freedom, openness and the rule of law…
… and confident that in this moment of challenge and competition…
… our interests will be protected… and our values will prevail.
CHW (London 29th November 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785