Britain’s armed forces pivot east to face growing China threat

Closer ties with Asian allies, greater use of artificial intelligence and deploying more troops east of Suez are among the strategies Britain’s military chiefs are considering to counter China’s growing assertiveness since the pandemic.

The heads of the army, navy and air force met with ministers at the Tower of London this week to decide priorities for the government’s security, defence and foreign policy review, due to conclude this autumn. The post-Covid world will see increased “economic crisis, conflict and competition”, defence secretary Ben Wallace warned after the strategy summit. “The threats we face come in many forms across many continents.”

Despite escalating Russian activity in the north Atlantic, Iranian threats to shipping in the Gulf and Isis’ operations in the Middle East, the risks posed by China dominated discussions. Beijing’s imposition this week of a new security law in Hong Kong and its increasingly insistent claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea have underlined a growing willingness for confrontation. 

A protester is detained in Hong Kong under the new national security laws. Beijing has threatened countermeasures in response to UK condemnation of its actions in Hong Kong © Miguel Candela/EPA

Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP and chair of the House of Commons defence select committee, said UK relations with China needed a “fundamental reset”. “We need to work out how we will deal with a China that economically, technically and militarily is going to surpass the US within our lifetimes,” he said.

Project Defend — a strategy to reduce Britain’s industrial reliance on China — is already under way to help reshore and diversify supply chains. The defence chiefs’ challenge is to determine the military manifestation of a more sceptical attitude to Beijing.

A key focus will be technology and cyber defence. The UK does not expect armed confrontation with China, but experts have warned it must prepare for a different type of conflict.

China’s readiness to stand up to the west — for instance, when Beijing threatened countermeasures this week in response to UK condemnation of its actions in Hong Kong — is likely to involve an expansion of hybrid warfare combining political and economic aggression with cyber attacks. Military officials said the review would look at how forces can use artificial intelligence to protect data, networks and intellectual property. 

Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency in Cheltenham. Threats from China are likely to involve cyber attacks rather than military confrontation © GCHQ/PA

Charles Parton, a former British diplomat who was posted for several years in Beijing, argued that a “major objective” of the review should be a proper study of China’s hybrid tactics. This should, he suggested, include close consultation with Taiwan, which currently bears the brunt of such hostilities.

The review is also likely to recommend a more visible UK presence in China’s sphere of influence. This means going beyond Nato, Britain’s traditional military focus, to work more closely with allies on China’s doorstep, such as South Korea and Japan. It also fits the government’s vision of a more “global Britain” post-Brexit.

Robert Johnson, director of Oxford university’s changing character of war centre, said that while there were “obvious limits” to what the UK could achieve against Beijing on its own, it should look to strengthen alliances. “Australia, the United States, and the UK have been joined by other nations, including India, in opposing China’s draconian diplomacy and coercive policies,” he said. 

The armed forces, too, are looking at ways of bolstering Asian allies. “We’ll probably be looking at being a bit more present,” said one official. “That might mean putting a few more people in a few more places, but they wouldn’t all be doing hard war fighting”.

Just this week, the Royal Navy announced that it would permanently deploy a few hundred Royal Marine commandos east of Suez as part of a new “persistent global presence” of naval personnel based on ships who can rapidly deploy to emerging crises. Officials said this was a hint of what was to come and suggested the review would recommend more ships “forward-deployed” in this region.

Finally, the review will have to consider new hardware requirements. Even if an escalation to actual combat is not likely, projection matters. In the past five years, China’s navy has grown by the equivalent tonnage as the whole Royal Navy. Beijing’s development of long-range precision missiles, capable of targeting aircraft carriers and warships, threatens UK capabilities. 

A Royal Marine on jungle training in Ghana. Hundreds of marines are to be posted permanently east of Suez © MoD/Crown copyright

“The carrier is not a threat to China because China has developed missiles specifically to kill carriers at great range and to shoot down joint strike fighters,” said Richard Barrons, a retired general and former head of Britain’s Joint Forces Command. “How do we reset the carriers for power projection with new technology . . . to restore their competitiveness?”

One option is buying new drones and missiles to fly from the Royal Navy’s two aircraft carriers. Another is funding research into how to combat Beijing’s sophisticated defence systems which prevent adversaries from getting close to an area of operations.

Given the competition for resources post-Covid, any new spending on air or naval power is expected to involve a cut to the army, which could fall from its current level of 82,000 to as low as 60,000.

The Ministry of Defence is under pressure to come up with fresh ideas on a tight deadline. Downing Street is keen that the review — which was paused at the height of the Covid crisis — should still conclude in time for recommendations to be implemented in this autumn’s spending review.

Mr Ellwood, meanwhile, urged ministers not to downgrade defence in favour of other spending priorities. “We overplay our military capability in public, when actually it’s been on the decrease for a number of years,” he said. “You find out to your peril when you should have invested more.”