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19 March 2021

Why the Integrated Review treats Russia and China differently

Natasha Kuhrt

Russia is an “acute and direct threat”, while China is a “systemic competitor”


Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, recently said that the biggest threats the UK faces come from Russia and China, which are trying to undermine the West through cyber attacks and “paying for political division”. Sir John declared both countries to be bigger threats to the UK than terrorism.


Yet the UK government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, published this week, treats the two countries very differently: Russia is characterised as an “acute and direct threat”, while China’s status is somewhat more ambiguous, described as a “systemic competitor”. This language is very evocative of the US Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, also published this month, which described Russia as a “disruptor”, and China as a “challenger”.


The singling out of Russia as a bigger threat than China makes sense in the context of the Salisbury poisonings. But it also highlights the fact that while the types of regimes in place in both countries are a source of friction with the West, China has something to offer that Russia does not. China is described very much in terms of a provider of international public goods, and as a state that, while problematic to deal with, is also an “increasingly important partner in tackling global challenges” – one with which it can have “a positive economic relationship, including deeper trade links and more Chinese investment in the UK”.


In this respect, there appears to be a disconnect between the UK’s stated commitment to uphold international rules and norms and cooperating with a power like China that violates human rights. The investment agreement inked by the EU with China in December 2020 has been the subject of much disagreement among EU members, some of whom see it as condoning China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. This was bad timing given that the Biden administration had pledged to address some of these challenges by renewing transatlantic dialogue and coordinating policies on China with EU members.


The focus on the “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific outlined in the Integrated Review suggests that the UK seeks to play a role in supporting the US bid to contain China, which seems in some ways at odds with the insistence on improving relations with Beijing. It might also appear to signal to NATO allies that the UK is becoming distracted from its core tasks in Europe.


There is nothing in the Integrated Review on the Sino-Russian rapprochement, which is going from strength to strength. While policies between Russia and China are not necessarily coordinated as such, there is evidence to show that mutual learning is taking place. This is particularly evident in the disinformation sphere, where China is learning from Russia, but the two powers also coordinate cyber policies. The EU has admitted that it lacks capacity to deal with China, which now has cells in the EU – although NATO does have a unit dedicated to monitoring and assessing Sino-Russian cooperation in military, political and technical fields, including hybrid warfare and disinformation. The Review at least declares that the UK will ensure a “unified Western response” through NATO, even if it shows little awareness of the extent of cooperation between China and Russia in this area. The Salisbury attack is credited with having demonstrated the value of responding to Russian actions collectively, but the UK cannot stand up to China alone either.


Resilience is a buzzword running throughout the Review, and in particular with reference to Russian disinformation activities. The rollout of the Defending Democracy Programme, the Review says, will utilise the UK’s G7 presidency to increase efforts to protect UK institutions and elected officials from intimidation, interference and espionage …”


A lot of attention is paid to threats “above and below the threshold of war under international law” – the so-called “grey zone”. The increasingly blurred lines between war and peace can be exploited by countries like Russia (and China) to “test our resolve,” as the Review suggests. What’s more, a lack of unity in the West makes the job of undermining faith in democratic institutions much easier for Russia. The fact that the West has at times itself abandoned certain norms of international order, or displayed a lack of agreement on them, can by exploited by Russia. This point could have been made more forcefully in the Review, which only acknowledges that the international order is now more fragmented and “characterised by intensifying competition between states over interests, norms and values”. It is to be hoped that the emphasis on working with partners and allies will go some way to overcome this.

Dr Natasha Kuhrt is a Lecturer in International Peace and Security in the Department of War Studies, King's College London.