Written evidence submitted by Dr Anisa Heritage

Short Bio

Dr Heritage joined the Defence and International Affairs Department, Faculty for the Study of Leadership, Security and Warfare at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as Senior Lecturer in May 2020. Her research expertise centres on international order-building, order contestation and order transformation, and US-China great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.

Her publications focus on the South China Sea disputes and more recently, on the UK’s Indo-Pacific Tilt. Her forthcoming journal article examines European and UK Indo-Pacific strategies, considering the opportunities and challenges of their alignment with the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Evidence Summary


SECTION 1: Significance of the Indo-Pacific to the UK

Conceptual clarity on the “Indo-Pacific”

  1. The UK government has not defined geographical boundaries for the Indo-Pacific in either the Integrated Review (IR) or the Defence Command Paper; hence it ought not be referred to as a “region”. The Indo-Pacific concept – stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean – is contextualised for the purposes, preferences and perspectives of the various actors and stakeholders engaging in the Indo-Pacific.
  2. “Indo-Pacific” has grown in usage across diplomatic and security circles globally.
  3. The Trump and Biden administrations “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept is an expression of the growing strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
  4. Other actors, for example ASEAN and India, emphasise aspects such as economic prosperity, connectivity and multilateral cooperation in their Indo-Pacific concepts.
  5. ASEAN defines “Indo-Pacific” less as a territorially delineated space, but rather as an interdependent, closely linked region without clearly defined its borders, although ASEAN is at the core.[1] The emphasis is on an inclusive understanding of “Indo-Pacific” as a connectivity concept which is open to all regional states, including China.
  6. Neither China nor Russia officially refers to the “Indo-Pacific”, retaining instead “Asia-Pacific”. In China’s case, “Asia-Pacific” keeps China firmly in the centre of Asia, while “Indo-Pacific” draws in India and shifts the regional centre of gravity away from China.  In Beijing, “Indo-Pacific” is primarily understood as a U.S.-led containment strategy directed against China.

The Indo-Pacific Tilt in UK government publications

  1. The IR and Defence Command Paper outline the steps this government will take to “tilt” politically, diplomatically, economically and strategically. The UK government has not generated an Indo-Pacific “strategy” or “vision” in the vein of other European partners including the EU, France, Germany and the Netherlands.
  2. Hence, the Indo-Pacific Tilt is an evolving strategy encompassing the full range of political, economic, diplomatic and foreign policy tools at the government’s disposal.
  3. The IR defines the Indo-Pacific as “critical to our economy, our security and our global ambition to support open societies”. The Indo-Pacific is recognised as the centre of intensifying geopolitical competition and the frontline of new security challenges including cyberspace, in addition to the myriad non-traditional security issues that permeate the region (e.g., climate change, non-state actor threats such as piracy, human and drug trafficking and organised crime).
  4. To date, the UK’s focus on the Indo-Pacific has centred on nurturing and fostering diplomatic and trade ties across the region and especially with ASEAN and with Southeast Asian states. In particular, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines were very supportive of the UK’s accession to ASEAN dialogue partner status. 

-          Joining ASEAN as a dialogue partner and negotiating accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) are important and significant steps towards rooting the UK in regional economic and trade structures via key institutions.

-          Greater UK trade and infrastructure engagement is seen as offering an alternative to China.

  1. The UK is a welcome partner in Southeast Asia and is looked upon favourably through its historical and cultural ties to the region. The English language is the lingua franca in ASEAN; the UK’s soft power is exercised particularly through education, music, sport and the BBC and a belief in the UK as a stable and established democratic and liberal state. ASEAN holds its relationship with the UK in high regard and supports a post-Brexit-UK playing a more integral role in the region.  
  2. In a region with high infrastructure needs and seeking alternatives to Chinese investment, the UK could also consider joining the Australia-US-Japan Blue Dot Network in addition to, or in collaboration with the UK’s revamped development finance institution, the British International Investment (BII), launched in November 2021 and due to start operating in April 2022.[2]
  3. In the security sphere, the UK has committed to:

-          Carrier Strike Group 21 (CGS21) – a high point of UK defence diplomacy across the Indo-Pacific in 2021.

-          The deployment of Offshore Patrol Vessels and a Littoral Response Group (LRG) in 2023 to complement the episodic deployment of a British Carrier Strike Group.

  1. The UK is in the process of deepening strategic ties with Japan. In September 2021, the UK government announced the initiation of formal negotiations for a Japan-UK Reciprocal Access Agreement - a legal framework that will further elevate Japan-UK security and defence cooperation.
  2. The UK has redoubled efforts with the Republic of Korea (ROK), for instance, the UK’s invitation to President Moon Jae-in to attend the G7 summit in Cornwall in June 2021.


SECTION 2: Current defence position in relation to the Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper

  1. The IR sets out the following broad cross-government goals:

-          To be the European partner with the broadest and most integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific (bilaterally and multi-laterally)

-          Freedom of navigation

-          Persistent engagement by UK armed forces and wider security capacity-building – strengthening security and defence cooperation, including in maritime security, overseas bases and enhancing engagement with FPDA partners and increasing engagement with regional security groupings

-          To look for ways to work more closely with European partners, including France and Germany

  1. Key government documentation since 2020 (including the Integrated Operating Concept [IOpC], the IR and Defence Command paper) sets out the changing operational environment in which UK armed forces are engaging. Additionally, these documents highlight the complexity of current and future operating environments, emphasising the difference between Operating and Warfighting and the need for greater collaboration and interoperability with allies and partners, burden-sharing, and collaborative technological innovation which will be “allied by design”.
  2. Engaging and constraining are two elements of the IOpC framework that are relevant to Southeast Asia, given the focus on “training, advising, assisting and accompanying. Translating this framework into Southeast Asia, the UK ought to continue developing resilience and upstream prevention, especially short-term training teams (STTT), and joint training exercises across conventional and non-traditional security areas. Joint exercises occur at regular frequency in the Indo-Pacific, especially in Southeast Asia. UK participation is broadly welcomed and would also benefit the UK in deepening its understanding of regional partners and their capabilities.

Is the UK listening to Southeast Asia?

  1. The UK government has been less clear on communicating its broader operational goals and political interests in the Indo-Pacific. The AUKUS announcement on September 15th, 2021 was met with a best a neutral or ambivalent response across Southeast Asia, the ROK, and Japan.[3] The few official statements on AUKUS typically reflect this ambiguity. Japan’s Foreign Minister Motegi kept more generally to a statement that downplayed AUKUS, stating that “we will continue to advance dialogue and cooperation under various frameworks with related countries toward the major objective of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region”.[4]
  2. Although the UK is seen as a junior partner in the AUKUS deal, AUKUS potentially undermines the UK’s diplomatic efforts in the region. Moreover, the diplomatic fallout from the AUKUS deal continued into the October 2021 Five Powers Defence Agreement (FDPA) summit forcing the Armed Forces Minister, James Heappey, to declare the controversy over AUKUS was “over-hyped” on account of the long-standing close working relationship between the UK, US and Australia.
  3. The AUKUS statement also side-lined the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy announcement on September 16th September, which does nothing to strengthen the UK’s ability to work with European partners in the Indo-Pacific.


SECTION 3: Future developments

Southeast Asian security

  1. More clarity, both domestically and with our Indo-Pacific partners, is needed on what the UK is securing and what it is defending through a potentially increased military presence in the Indo-Pacific.
  2. Signatories to ASEAN are bound to respect for the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and to respect Southeast Asia as a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN). When the principle of ZOPFAN was agreed in 1971, the region faced serious regional conflict and was the centre of international tension and intervention. The declaration is equally significant today.
  3. ASEAN’s key goal is to maintain ASEAN Centrality to all aspects of Southeast Asian security. ASEAN’s approach to security and defence are based on an ASEAN consensus format with the process being more important in many respects to the outcomes. ASEAN’s unanimity-centred mechanism is under significant pressure, especially in dealing with the current complex regional security environment. However, ASEAN’s recent failure in dealing with the military junta in Myanmar has given rise to excessive sensibility within ASEAN over any criticisms or marginalisation of ASEAN centrality.
  4. Security and defence cooperation in Southeast Asia occurs across multiple bilateral and multilateral platforms which do not look like or act like any European security and defence mechanisms.
  5. There are several overlapping ‘security’ mechanisms including the ADMM+, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS), with a focus on strategic dialogue and cooperation, and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), with a human security focus.
  6. The State of Southeast Asia: 2022 Survey Report underscores the regional perspective on security is overwhelmingly on human security/non-traditional security challenges. COVID-19 is deemed a threat to health (at 75.4 per cent), followed by the risks of unemployment and economic recession (49.8 per cent). In third place is climate change and the region’s exposure to extreme weather events (37.0 per cent).[5]
  7. The most effective defence-focused mechanisms are the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus the eight Dialogue Partners (ADMM+), and the East Asia Summit (EAS). The UK’s accession to ASEAN Dialogue partner status is typically seen as the first step towards deeper integration into regional mechanisms. However, there is currently little support in ASEAN for expanding the ADMM+ and EAS. The aim is to keep them small, the membership relevant and the mechanisms effective. The ASEAN Regional Forum has a wide membership and consequently, the challenge for the ARF has been its ability to be effective and relevant to regional security.
  8. While Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei are likely to be the most supportive of UK entry to ADMM+, the next ASEAN Chair in 2023, Indonesia, is critical of expansion.

The UK’s Indo-Pacific Tilt from a Defence perspective

  1. The UK’s approach to date has been to work bilaterally with Southeast Asian states in developing and deepening defence ties and on building trust – Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and increasingly with Vietnam. Continuing to prioritise UK commitments to the Five Powers Defence Arrangements (FPDA) is a must.
  2. The UK ought to be clear what is means by defence and what type of defence it is offering. From the statements within the IR and Defence Command Paper, it seems focus is on capacity-building and facilitating allies and partners to secure themselves, rather than the UK engaging in any kind of regional defence role in the foreseeable future. Further clarification is needed on expectations and priorities.
  3. With the exception of Singapore and Viet Nam, most states in Southeast Asia are sceptical of a military tilt by the UK or by any European state.
  4. The main reason is their fear of increasing militarisation of their region which is already heavily militarised by internal and external regional actors – especially in and around the Malacca Straits. There are real concerns of miscalculation, and the prospect of Southeast Asia becoming the nexus of increasing competition and potential conflict.
  5. Increasing trade and diplomacy (including defence diplomacy) are welcome. Diplomatic support, participation in regional forums, especially ASEAN, and financial investment are welcome. Expanding the professionalised cadre of defence diplomacy, as outlined in the Defence Command Paper, is welcome. Likewise, British capacity-building, STTTs, and engagement/partnership in non-traditional security issues are also very welcome.
  6. The main question on the minds of Southeast Asian political elites concerns the UK’s staying power and whether the UK military can be relied upon to be reassuring and trustworthy, or is an increased UK military presence more likely to aggravate existing tensions? On balance, the region would appreciate a credible deterrence strategy from the UK or alternatively, strong signals of support from NATO. Given regional sensitivities, hard power engagements, such as increased basing, will only heighten tensions. There is no support for further militarisation or aggravation of China. 

A middle path?

  1. Juggling nuanced and different partners with different ideas about the region – based on their own perspectives and geographical positions and proximity to China. There is not a “one-size fits all” approach to the Indo-Pacific.
  2. As mentioned before, AUKUS is widely viewed in Southeast Asia as an alliance directed towards China and there are genuine concerns that this is the first step towards future nuclear proliferation. 
  3. Australia is not considered an Asian state in Southeast Asia – it is a western state in Asia. Moreover, Australia has chosen a side – the US. Therefore, Australia cannot be treated as a neutral dialogue partner in Southeast Asia.
  4. The UK has to negotiate a tricky line between committing to the US approach (and increasingly hardening views on China), while simultaneously maintaining a stabilising and reassurance approach to Southeast Asia. China is the biggest neighbour to Southeast Asia and this geographical reality cannot change. They have to maintain healthy diplomatic relations with China and there is little will for the pressure of an added complexity of having to choose sides.
  5. Potential UK membership of the QUAD is likely to be viewed in a similar vein to AUKUS in Southeast Asia. The Biden administration is said to prefer the QUAD mechanism and it is evident that the depth of US-ASEAN relations is contingent on the President’s commitment to multilateral mechanisms. Suggestions that President Biden prefers “Quad Centrality”[6] immediately undermines ASEAN centrality, which will inevitably create challenges for UK diplomacy in Southeast Asia if it is seen to side too regularly with the US approach.


SECTION 4: Recommendations

  1. To collaborate and coordinate maritime deployments to the Indo-Pacific with European partners. Rebuilding relations with France over AUKUS is essential, along with resurrecting the E3 mechanism with France and Germany to better coordinate European responses.
  2. Is it time to set out geographical delimitations on the Indo-Pacific construct to assist in developing the UK’s regional defence, diplomacy and development priorities? Does this term of reference also extend to East Africa? How does the Indo-Pacific Tilt also relate to Pakistan/Afghanistan and other parts of South Asia including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal?
  3. Engaging the British public in the merits of the Indo-Pacific Tilt – not only in relation to China but more in promoting the benefits to the UK economy and security relations in looking beyond the Euro-Atlantic sphere.



4th March 2022