Strengthening alliances key for UK security
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace calls for unity in increasingly dangerous world
“We need to stick together.” That was the key message from Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, as he addressed Conservative party members, delegates and figures from the defence industry at party conference earlier this month.
In a wide-ranging interview covering everything from cybersecurity and space, to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the rise of China and ongoing difficulties with Russia, the need for the UK to strengthen old alliances – and forge new ones – emerged again and again as the core theme.
Wallace said the deal to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia – dubbed Aukus – signalled a new era for the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing agreement between the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and spoke positively about ties with countries in the Indo-Pacific such as Vietnam.
But he was clear that in a rapidly-changing world, Nato remains the cornerstone of the UK’s security. “Nato is the key alliance for standing up to the malign activity of Russia,” he told Sky News’ Tamara Cohen.
“The benefit of NATO is that the politics is already done. The treaty that was drawn up and put in place already sets out when we will work together, when we
will be required to come to the aid of other countries. And that’s really important, because you often hear the debate in Europe about a European Army, but you never hear the debate about the politics. I mean you can have as many European armies as you like, but if you don’t have a political agreement those armies will sit around doing precisely nothing, because no one can agree to deploy them.
“Article 5 of Nato triggers us to come to the aid of a Nato ally, whether we like it or not, that is the obligation we have, that is the sovereignty we have pooled.
And that was sorted out decades ago and it is still the cornerstone of our security.”
A firm response to Russia, he added, was vital to send a message to other potential aggressors, including Beijing. “Russia will always be a key concern for us if it behaves this way…not just because of what Russia does, but because it tests the resolve of Nato and because China is watching.”
The present government’s view on China is a far cry from that of the Coalition government of 2010-2015. Deemed “The Golden Age” of Anglo-Sino relations, the Cameron-Osborne era saw the UK open up its supply chains to – and as according to Wallace “become overly dependent on” – China.
“We opened up our supply chains and our customer base – as did the Europe and the US – without any real conditions. No sense of ‘for access to our consumer, we need some sense of fair play’,” Wallace said.
“I think this was a mistake across the West,” he continued, claiming the UK and others had put a desire for “cheap goods” ahead of principles.
“The G7 is not just about the seven big economies, it is the sharing of similar values,” he said, adding: “If we stand for anything in the Pacific, we should stand for fair play, the rule of law and respect for each other’s intellectual property. China is not in that space, it is not respecting its neighbours, its minorities nor the “two systems one state” agreement. And at the same time it continues to want access to our consumers. And I think we should be all for saying enough is enough and we need a strategy for that.”
When quizzed on China’s purported designs on Taiwan, he called for peaceful negotiation as a route out of the brewing crisis, warning “military force to reconcile these differences would be deeply wrong”.
Even so, he does not equate this with sitting idly by. It was under his watch that the Royal Navy sent HMS Richmond through the Taiwan Strait. “Our position to all of these things, is upholding the rule of law,” he said. “China should not be flying into other people’s airspace. That is why in solidarity we sent a ship through the Strait. Which brings me back to my point: we all need to stick together with these things, because if we let one thing go, what goes next? We are under daily and monthly challenges to our way of life.”
Fortunately, Wallace heads up a department that has been given special attention by the prime minister, who recently authorised an extra £24 billion in funding for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) over the next four years.
“That’s the biggest injection since the Cold War,” said Wallace. “It has been an incredible two years for defence. The world is changing, and we need to change with it. I had an ambition to reform the MOD and the perception of defence in general and was incredibly glad that the prime minister supported my position on this.”
How does he intend to do this?
“Only the US and China have unilateral warfighting power,” he said. “We need partners and allies. I want an armed forces that is potent, does what it says on the tin, and invests in alliances so if we do ever have to go into conflicts of scale, we can interoperate both within our own forces and with our international partners.”