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'Defending the Rights Based Order' | Speech to the Commons Defence Debate

The 'Rules Based Order' is a staple of our foreign policy discourse. But the truth is, we need a far clearer strategy for defending the Rights Based Order. Here I set out the argument in the June 2023 House of Commons general debate on defence.

Mr Speaker

I will make three very quick points about focus versus spread, the need to prepare for economic warfare and the importance of expanding our soft power.

The beginning of the debate was pretty illuminating. The Minister eloquently set out the stark reduction in our capabilities since 2010. The reason why we need the defence Command Paper was well illustrated. On the one hand, the spread is getting bigger, but on the other, the capability that we have on hand is much reduced. We desperately need to bring a sense of focus to our priorities.

For me, that must start with the re-containment of Russia, which has a nasty habit of invading and invading and invading its neighbours. Down the course of history, Russia invades its neighbours over and over again. That is why we have to complete the rebuilding of NATO. Nobody has said anything today about President Erdoğan’s commentary on keeping Sweden out. That is something that this House should deprecate.

We have to strengthen our capabilities in the Arctic. China and Russia’s “no limits” partnership creates the risk of a new polar silk road through the Arctic that will halve China’s journey time for transiting goods around the world. Russia is re-equipping bases in the Kola peninsula, where, of course, it stables its second strike capability. We will need to strengthen our deployment and our weaponry in the Arctic if we are to keep the Arctic safe.

We have to bring greater attention to central Asia. We have to ensure that we do everything we can to support the multi-vector foreign policy ambitions of countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and others along Russia’s southern boundary.

We have to do more in Africa, not least because the Wagner Group is now raping Africa, exploiting 14 countries there. We already know that something like $250 million has been extracted from Africa to help fund Prigozhin and his dogs of war. We must bring a sense of focus and priority, and that is why we need a Command Paper.

There are also new opportunities to consider, of course. Defence spending is rising: NATO partners are committed to raise defence spending by something like $55 billion, and our allies in Japan are committed to raising theirs by something like $60 billion—that is $100 billion extra in defence spending among our allies. We should have an intelligent conversation about who should be spending what and where. I suspect that one of the conclusions would be that we should focus much more aggressively closer to home.

Secondly, we have to ensure that we are prepared for economic warfare. The alliance structure has been transformed over the last two to three years. We now have not just a rules-based order but the hardcore of a rights-based order—AUKUS, NATO, the North American free trade agreement, the EU, the Quad, us, Korea, Switzerland and Israel. Together, those countries make up two thirds of global GDP—$61 trillion—but we do not co-ordinate critical supply chains across that great arc of the globe, and we do not co-ordinate strategies for critical minerals. In fact, we co-ordinate very little.

Part of the problem is that we have still to define precisely what a critical supply chain is. I put that question to the Foreign Secretary on Monday. Frankly, he struggled to answer it. He could not tell the Committee whether our dependence on China was going up or down, despite the fact that imports from China have doubled to £73.4 billion in the last decade. We have to get a grip on that; we have to think through, strategically and forensically, where we are economically vulnerable and how we can deepen our alliances, particularly with the United States and the EU, to ensure that our critical supply chains are safe from foreign interference. Our allies in Europe and America are spending $1.5 trillion on supply chains, the transition to domestic energy and their respective Chips Acts. We are currently shut out of those dialogues. We simply cannot afford to have that vulnerability in the future.

Finally, I underline the importance of a whole-of-Government approach—as was mentioned by the Chair of the Liaison Committee, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin)—and that includes transforming our soft power around the world. On the Foreign Affairs Committee, when we talk to ambassadors we tend to hear four or five common themes. First, we should see English as a strategic enabler, stop the cuts to the British Council and expand the provision of English teaching around the world. Secondly, we should think radically about how we expand the BBC World Service. The truth is the best stratcom we have available, so we should stop underfunding it. Thirdly, we should think about how we expand education links, whether that is through Chevening scholarships, university-to-university links or technical assistance programmes. Fourthly, we should expand the incredible work of our military attachés. Fifthly, we should get a well-functioning visa service and a Foreign Secretary who is travelling an awful lot more.

This has been a welcome debate, but it underlines the point that there is an awful lot more to do if we are to step up to the responsibilities that, across the House, we believe that we share.


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