Britain is heading into a decade in which “democracy is in retreat”, with autocratic regimes claiming a greater slice of global wealth and military might, foreign secretary Dominic Raab is to warn in a chilling vision of the 2020s.
Speaking a day after Boris Johnson controversially announced he was lifting the cap on the size of the UK’s nuclear arsenal, Mr Raab will say that the UK needs to project military power in order to act as a “force for good” as the institutions underpinning democracy face their greatest threat since the Cold War.
But his claim that the UK will be guided by its “moral compass” was undermined by a leaked recording of him telling Foreign Office staff that Britain risks missing out on “growth markets” if it refuses to trade with states breaching human rights standards.
Mr Raab’s comments come after the prime minister used his long-awaited integrated review of the UK’s military, diplomatic and development stance to announce an “Indo-Pacific tilt” to policy, in response to China’s increasing dominance on the world stage.
While declaring China a “great challenge for an open society such as ours” and backing away from David Cameron’s promises of a “golden era” of relations with Beijing, Mr Johnson insisted the UK would pursue a “stronger and positive economic relationship” with the Asian nation and seek to engage on issues like climate change.
But he came under pressure from his own party to take a tougher approach – with senior backbencher Tobias Ellwood demanding a “Fulton Missouri moment” to match the 1946 speech in which Sir Winston Churchill declared that an Iron Curtain divided the free world from Soviet Russia.
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And there were cries of “genocide” from Labour MPs when the PM told the House of Commons the UK had led international condemnation of China’s “mass detention” of Uighur people in Xinjiang.
Mr Johnson was accused of breaching nuclear non-proliferation treaties by reversing promises to cut the UK’s stockpile of warheads to 180 by the mid-2020s. His new cap of 260 was denounced by campaigners as a scale of increase not seen since the height of the Cold War.
Opponents of Mr Johnson’s cut in aid spending to 0.5 per cent of GDP were furious at his failure to name a date to return to the 0.7 per cent level promised in the Tory manifesto. The review stated only that this would happen “when the fiscal situation allows” and Downing Street made clear there was no guarantee of this coming before 2030.
In a speech to the Aspen Security Forum, Mr Raab will say that the review set out how the UK’s role as “a force for good in the world” will be the “defining feature of Global Britain for the next decade”.
Britain’s approach will be driven by the recognition that in the coming decade, the combined GDP of autocratic regimes – like China and Russia – will for the first time in many decades outstrip those of the world’s democracies.
He will say that the UK needs to be ready to use its force “because without power, without economic, military, diplomatic, cultural clout, we can do nothing” to increase global security and living standards.
“Democracy is in retreat,” Mr Raab will say. “Tyranny is richer than freedom.
“And that matters to us here at home. Because stable, freedom-respecting democracies are much less likely to go to war, house terrorists or trigger large-scale flows of migrants and they are generally – not always, but generally – easier to trade with and easier to cooperate with to solve our shared problems.”
Mr Raab will say UK policy will be guided by “our moral compass, our history, and our present-day mission as a force for good in the world” in seeking to alleviate suffering, foster peace and stability and protect the global ecosystem.
But his comments clashed with a leaked recording obtained by the HuffPost website, in which he told Foreign Office officials: “I squarely believe we ought to be trading liberally around the world.
“If we restrict it to countries with ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights)-level standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future.”
James Cleverly, the Foreign Office minister, was asked about those comments on BBC Newsnight. He said holding countries like China or Saudi Arabia to European rights standards as “the sole parameter” of a trading relationship was “a question that doesn’t really relate to reality”. He added: “We have trade relationships all around the world.”
Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Commons Defence Committee, led backbench Tory disquiet over the PM’s stance on China, calling on Mr Johnson to make a Churchill-style intervention to “call it out (as) the geostrategic threat that it is”.
“There is a 1930s feel to the scale of challenges that we face today, with rising authoritarian powers, weak global institutions and an absence of western leadership and collective resolve,” warned Mr Ellwood.
And Julian Lewis, chair of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, warned that the continued emphasis on trade links and Chinese investment in the UK suggested that Mr Johnson’s administration was still in the grip of the “grasping naivety” of the Cameron years.
Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt urged Mr Johnson to keep China policy under review, warning: “I am worried about designating China simply as a systemic challenge given the terrible events in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.”
Mr Johnson said there was “a balance to be struck”, given the UK’s £81bn trading relationship with China.
“China is the second-largest economy in the world and a fact of our lives,” he told MPs. “Those who call for a new Cold War on China or for us to sequester our economy entirely from China… are, I think, mistaken.”
Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London, told The Independent that the review was founded on the “illusion” that the UK as a unilateral player could exert influence over China.
“Alas, on the really critical things for the UK – like environment, economic development and pandemics – we have to work with China, like it or not,” said Prof Brown. “And in that context, there is a real danger that the language about values and how the UK is a beacon of free choice and democracy looks like a sort of optional add-on.
“The China challenge is far more fundamental and profound – broadly, for the first time in modern history, a non-European power with utterly different cultural and political values is rising to dominance, and in some areas is already dominant.
“The only choice that a player like the UK has is to accept this, quietly or noisily. Underneath the presentation and the usual Johnson rhetoric, I think the choice has been made – rightly so – that we have to live with this situation.”
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