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The UK must prepare for a dangerous decade and seek a more influential role

3 min read

The rise of China and the fundamental questions about the UK’s hard power capacity are major issues for the Defence Select Committee, writes Tobias Ellwood MP 

We are in a period of phenomenal global change. While we have been busy debating Brexit the world has become more dangerous than any period since the Cold War. The volatile and unpredictable decade ahead of us poses big questions for the UK, our leadership on the international stage and our subsequent full spectrum capabilities posture.

In speaking up for UK defence we rightly praise the professionalism of our Armed Forces and encourage increased spending, upgrades in equipment, improved welfare packages and investment in barracks. These are necessary objectives but avoid the more fundamental question of our hard power capacity to underline our leadership in managing the fast-changing threats we face.

And lead we should. For as global threats become more diverse and complex and our international rules-based order continues to erode, the world is responding by becoming more protectionist, isolationist and populist – hesitant to defend or upgrade that rules-based order. A resurgent Russia, an unpredictable Iran, extremism, creeping authoritarianism, cyber conflict and the geo-political consequences of climate change will dominate the 2020s. Though they could all be overshadowed by a bigger challenge – namely the authoritarian rise of China, which will soon overtake the United States as the world’s dominant power.

The territorial expansion across South China continues unchecked. It is weaponising space and leveraging its technological supremacy to promote a state-controlled cyberworld. GPS will be overshadowed by the Chinese-owned technology company Baidu, giving greater access and censorship to global data. Its ‘one belt, one road’ financial deals fuel debt-trap diplomacy. China is on a mission to rapidly advance and widen its influence, rewriting international rules and norms as it grows. Today its navy alone grows by the total size of ours every year. With little global leadership to monitor and influence its growing economic, military and technological might, we could see an alternative competing global sphere of influence, operating far beyond the accepted norms of currently recognised international standards.

As we assess the widening spectrum of growing threats (both immediate and longer-term), the aspirational role the UK seeks to play, and the hard and soft power assets we subsequently require, this Government’s forthcoming Defence, Security and Foreign Policy Review is not just timely – it is the most critical since World War II. It will demand greater honesty about the true state of our forces, our procurement processes, our readiness and our resilience. We boast impressive new aircraft carriers, but the remaining surface fleet is depleted. The F35 is world beating, but our fast jet capability has shrunk from 36 squadrons during the Gulf War to just six today. Both our main battle tank and warrior APC are over 20 years old and, like so much of our kit, are pending upgrades. New dimensions of warfare such as cyber, information warfare and space security also demand investment. 

We face a daunting decade. This review will be an inflection point framing our ability to defend our interests and exert a greater global influence. I want to lead Parliament’s active engagement in this review and ensure our defence architecture receives the modernisation and expansion our nation expects.

Tobias Ellwood is Conservative MP for Bournemouth East

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