UK to lift nuclear stockpile cap; looks to Asia post-Brexit

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the National Express depot in Coventry, central England, Monday March 15, 2021. The Prime Minister is unveiling a shake-up of the bus sector which aims to see lower, simpler flat fares in towns and cities. (Steve Parsons/Pool via AP)

LONDON – Britain's government said Tuesday the U.K. will prioritize diplomatic engagement with Asian countries in the coming decade and lift its own cap on the size of its nuclear stockpile, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled a major shift in the country's foreign policy and defense priorities after Brexit.

Setting out a vision of a “Global Britain,” the government's new strategy document envisions the U.K. “tilting” toward the Indo-Pacific region and becoming a bigger player there as the world’s “geopolitical and economic center of gravity” moves east to countries such as China, India and Japan.

The document also outlined plans to overhaul the U.K.’s defense policies, most notably paving the way for increasing the amount of nuclear warheads Britain has at its disposal to 260. That reverses existing plans to reduce the stockpile to 180 by the middle of the decade, and a longstanding policy of gradual nuclear disarmament.

Russia remains “the most acute threat to our security," the government said, but the language on China was markedly more muted. While the report acknowledged the risks posed by a more assertive China, and described the country as the “biggest state-based threat to the U.K.’s economic security," Johnson said the U.K. will continue pursuing a “positive trade and investment relationship” with Beijing.

“There is no question China will pose a great challenge for an open society such as ours," Johnson told the House of Commons. “But we will also work with China where that is consistent with our values and interests, including building a stronger and positive economic relationship and in addressing climate change.”

As part of the new policy, Britain is applying for partner status in the Association of South East Asian Nations, and Johnson will travel to India next month for his first major international visit since the U.K. left the European Union.

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will be sent to the region later this year for its first operational deployment.

The document described a deteriorating global security environment, and said a “minimum, credible, independent nuclear deterrent” remains “essential in order to guarantee our security."