The Foreign Secretary’s Evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee: 10 Things We Learned

The UK Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab MP, gave evidence this week to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. The evidence comes at a crucial moment, just weeks away from the scheduled finalisation of the UK Government’s Integrated Review of the UK’s Defence, Security, Development and Foreign Policy. Below, we set out some of the highlights of the session, which provides a sense of the tone and substance of the Review ahead of its publication.

1. The Government wants the UK to be seen as a cooperative global partner in the pandemic, and will be hoping to project this during the vaccine roll-out.

2. The Foreign Secretary noted the UK and its allies must coordinate effectively to ensure that there isn’t a ‘vacuum’ in key positions in multilateral organisations that can be filled by authoritarian states.

(While it was not explicitly stated, it was implicit in his response that the ‘vacuum’ is being accelerated by the United States’ unpredictable behaviour towards global institutions. This reflects concerns being shared privately amongst the UK’s allies.)

3. The Foreign Secretary’s response to questions about the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report published in the summer mainly emphasised a defensive position of the existing systems the Government has in place. Expanding Magnitsky sanctions was the only specific future-oriented policy mentioned by the Foreign Secretary, alongside ‘a commitment to learn’.

4. While coming out strongly against its human rights violations, the Foreign Secretary defended the need to have a constructive relationship with China and expressed frustration at the pressure for an absolutist approach. He said there are both ‘risks and opportunities’ in engaging China, and the central opportunity for cooperation is around tackling climate change. He made clear that China should be part of the conversation at Cop26 and that he wants “China in the room” on UN climate talks.

5. The Foreign Secretary promoted a “three-pillar freedom agenda” for the UK’s foreign policy: defending media freedoms, the freedom of religion & belief, and imposing Magnitsky sanctions on those who constrain freedoms. The UK’s G7 presidency priorities will include promoting an “open societies” mission – based around both free trade, and democracy and human rights. It appears increasingly clear that the presidency is seen as the stage on which to express the ambitions of the Integrated Review.

6. In line with the government’s commitment towards investment in technology, and its ambitions for this to be a competitive point of difference, the Foreign Secretary mentioned that he would like to see investment in technology start-ups coordinated with institutional expertise – such as GCHQ – to offer a competitive advantage for the UK on the world stage.

(It was not mentioned by the Foreign Secretary, but this approach has also been discussed in the context of the UK’s liberal allies providing state-market combined solutions to challenge China’s dominance in competitive infrastructure tenders, as we note in our recent report)

7. The Foreign Secretary believes the integration of the FCO and DFID into one department has already been vindicated, and the increased impact of their work facilitated by the merger is now giving “more value for taxpayers’ buck”. When pushed on whether the Department of International Trade should also be integrated into the FCDO, Raab cautiously sidestepped the question of a formal merger; however, he said that a greater degree of integration was already taking place in a practical sense.

8. The breach of international law in the Internal Market Bill was described as a “cautionary defensive action” towards the European Union. He said there was absolutely no doubt that the UK is seen as a responsible global actor and that no other nation has raised issues with him to this effect. He robustly avoided comparisons of equivalence being drawn between the UK’s actions on this matter and authoritarian states.

9. When pressed on whether the UK should boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics due to the atrocities committed by the Chinese state towards its Uighur population, the Foreign Secretary left the question open and said that the “evidence needs to be evaluated” before decisions can be taken. He made clear that while they believe the human rights abuses are “egregious and appalling”, and “at odds with the responsibility” of members of the global community, the FCDO has not yet reached a point at which they can confidently declare that the situation has reached the legal threshold for the use of the term “genocide”.

10. The Foreign Secretary made clear that the “Indo-Pacific tilt” is going to be a – if not, the – core priority of the Integrated Review, and that the UK will be seeking to bring more “mid-sized powers” into its orbit as part of that agenda. He also named climate change, girls’ education, technology and cyber, and strengthening national resilience, as important focus areas in the Review.

The Integrated Review is expected to be published in November, following the United States’ Presidential elections. The BFPG will be hosting a series of events and conversations in the aftermath of the Review’s publication. Please sign up to our newsletter to keep informed about these.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.