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British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab talking to a Canadian TV crew on March 17, 2021 at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Whitehall, London, U.K.Luke Tchalenko/The Globe and Mail

British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab is defending his government’s plan to raise a decade-old cap on the number of nuclear weapons the country can possess as part of its independent new foreign-policy vision that portrays Britain seeking a global role, in a world full of threats.

The new target of increasing Britain’s nuclear arsenal to up to 260 warheads, from its existing cap of 180, marks the first major foreign policy shift by Boris Johnson’s government since it led the country out of the European Union three months ago.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Raab avoided naming any specific enemy that the larger nuclear arsenal was required to confront. But an “integrated review” of British foreign policy, which was published on Tuesday and hotly debated in Parliament since then, reaffirms the country’s commitment to the NATO alliance in the face of what’s described as “the most acute threat to our security” in the form of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Mr. Raab said Britain remained committed to nuclear non-proliferation, but needed to maintain what he called “credible strategic deterrence” in a security environment that is very different from what it was 11 years ago when countries, including Britain, made public commitments to reduce their nuclear arsenals.

“We’ve seen a diversification of nuclear threats from different, potentially hostile states. We’ve seen a diversification of proliferation, if you like, of the technology that could lead to nuclear weapons,” he said Wednesday, speaking to The Globe at the Foreign and Commonwealth and Development Office in London. “We, like many others, think that we cannot afford, given the risks, a unilateral nuclear disarmament. Once you’re committed to that, you’ve got to keep it up.”

Russia maintains the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal with 4,310 warheads, according to the Federation of American Scientists, followed by the United States, which has 3,800. Both Moscow and Washington, however, have retired hundreds of warheads over the past three decades under a series of arms-control agreements. Britain’s new target would buck that trend, keeping it the world’s fifth-largest nuclear power while bringing its arsenal closer in size to those possessed by China and France, which each have around 300 warheads.

The foreign policy review makes scant mention of the EU, the 27-country bloc that Britain quit on Jan. 1. Instead, the document repeatedly refers to a “global Britain,” highlighting the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region, and calls for deepening diplomatic and trade ties with India, Japan, Australia and South Korea.

Japan is the only Asian country that’s a member of the Group of Seven industrialized nations. But Mr. Johnson’s government is expected to invite India, Australia and South Korea to join this year’s G7 summit, which is being held in June in Britain’s Cornwall region, with an eye to building a “D10” group of democracies.

While the D10 concept is viewed as an effort to counter the rising power of authoritarian states, including China and Russia, Beijing is described as a “systemic challenge” rather than an outright threat. “We will develop a better understanding of China, while improving our ability to respond to the systemic challenge that it poses to our security, prosperity and values,” the review reads.

There’s no such talk of trying to better understand the Kremlin. Asked to explain the different language used to describe Russia and China, Mr. Raab pointed to the attempted assassination of former KGB agent Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury in 2018, as well as last year’s poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny in Siberia. Both attacks involved banned Novichok-class chemical agents.

“Russia is a threat [in a] real, tangible, … predatory and opportunistic way,” Mr. Raab said, adding that Britain had also seen cyberattacks targeting COVID-19 vaccine research at Oxford University.

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China is different, he said, because the world needed to engage with Beijing in order to resuscitate the world economy after the pandemic, and to deal with global challenges such as climate change. Mr. Raab said Britain was seeking a “calibrated approach” to China that would include “standing up for our values” on issues such as the crackdown on Hong Kong and the systemic repression of China’s Muslim Uyghur population, while at the same time pursuing trade opportunities.

He said Britain would continue to support Canada in its efforts to seek the release of its citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been arbitrarily detained in China since 2018.

The policy review also included a pledge – reportedly a last-minute addition by Mr. Johnson – to restore foreign aid to its previous level of 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product “when the fiscal situation allows.” More than 100 British charities condemned the government for slashing promised aid to Yemen, considered the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, by 47 per cent.

Leaked documents obtained by the openDemocracy website show Mr. Johnson’s government, which has seen its finances hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, is also planning large cuts in aid to such war-torn countries as Syria, Libya and South Sudan.

Mr. Raab defended the cuts as necessary because of the budget crisis. But opposition politicians criticized the government’s ambition to build a larger nuclear arsenal – and do business with regimes such as Saudi Arabia, which is described in the policy review as a “close security partner” – at the same time as it was slashing foreign aid.

“This review breaks the goal of successive prime ministers and cross-party efforts to reduce our nuclear stockpile. It doesn’t explain when, why or for what strategic purpose,” Labour Leader Keir Starmer said in the House of Commons. “If ‘global Britain’ is to mean anything, it cannot mean selling arms to Saudi Arabia and cutting aid to Yemen.”

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