Integrated Review Refresh 2023: Refreshing the UK’s stance on China or bowing down to Beijing? 
By Elena Campbell, Consultant

The Integrated Review (IR21), published in March 2021, described the Government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world, setting out overarching national security and international policy objectives to 2025. It outlined what it considered to be three fundamental national interests that bind together the citizens of the UK – sovereignty, security, and prosperity. It also stresses the importance of deepening the UK’s relationships with allies and partners around the world, as well as moving more swiftly and with greater agility.

The 2023 Integrated Review Refresh (IR23), which comes only two years after the original, was commissioned to respond to emerging geopolitical threats, from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to China’s ‘economic coercion’.

A striking contrast from the more prosperous tones of 2021, the IR23 offers a more sobering account of the UK’s place in a world it now describes as “defined by danger, disorder and division”, and an “international order more favourable to authoritarianism.”

The previous definition of China contained in IR21 – deemed a “systematic competitor” by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson - has now been upgraded as presenting an “epoch-defining challenge”. The former definition sought to address concerns about China’s authoritarian government with the need to collaborate on global economic and climate issues. This intended to set the tone of Britain’s foreign policy for the next five years, but like many Johnson policies it was cast aside by Liz Truss in her first few weeks in government.

This, in fact, was Truss’s reason for reopening the integrated review, to respond to an increasingly aggressive China and upgrade its status to that of a “threat”, putting Beijing on a par with how the UK views Russia. This anti-China rhetoric continued throughout the Truss-Sunak Conservative leadership election, with Sunak labelling Beijing the “biggest long-term threat to Britain” and aiming to appeal to the Conservative MPs who are hawkish on China.

Though like Truss’ premiership, this stance didn’t last long with Sunak using IR23 to voice a more nuanced approach to relations with Beijing. Premised upon a recognition of China’s economic dominance, IR23 offers a slight upgrade to present China as an “epoch-defining challenge”, though not enough to satisfy and unite Conservative MPs on the issue. Alicia Kearns, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, reacted by saying there is much to welcome about IR23, but that the threat of China cannot be seen as primarily economic, and to do is a failure to understand China’s strategic priority to undermine the UK’s security and sovereignty.

Whilst IR23 was published only two years after IR21, another refresh of Britain’s foreign policy is to be expected by 2025, should a Labour Government come to power. Responding to IR23 in the House of Commons, Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, deemed the review part of the UK’s interest. He added that all have an interest in the Government making the right long-term choices for our country, including any future Labour Government who will inherit the consequences of those decisions. On China, Labour MPs such as Stephen Kinnock asked for assurance that there will be no return to the “utterly failed golden era” strategy.

Despite the UK’s varying stance towards China since at least Johnson’s premiership, each position at least marks a clear rejection of the “golden era” of UK-China relations, a phrase used by George Osborne as Chancellor in an attempt to frame Britain as Beijing’s “best partner in the West.”

Both IR21 and IR23 articulate a UK foreign policy that gives credence to China’s economic dominance whilst recognising the associated risks. Whether this threat level is increased to one mirroring the UK’s stance towards Russia, during a Labour Government or otherwise, remains to be seen.

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