Dr Anisa Heritage, Senior Lecturer, Department of Defence and International Affairs, Faculty for the Study of Leadership, Security and Warfare, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst - Written evidence (TRC0030)
The views I express in this written evidence are entirely my own, from open source material, and do not represent the views of DIA, LSW, Sandhurst or HMG.
This evidence is a response to the following questions:
Question 1: What would you identify as the main security issues and flashpoints in the Indo-Pacific region?
Question 2: The UK Government’s Integrated Review stated that the Government “will pursue deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific in support of shared prosperity and regional stability, with stronger diplomatic and trading ties”. How, in your opinion, could the UK contribute to the regional stability of the Indo-Pacific?
Question 3: Which countries are the UK’s principal partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific? What are their expectations of the UK with regard to security in the region?
Question 4: The UK Prime Minister has invited the leaders of Australia, India and South Korea to the G7 summit in June 2021, mooting the idea of turning the G7 into ‘the D10’. At the same time, US President Biden has signalled his willingness to organise a ‘Summit of Democracy’. What would be the purpose of such an ‘alliance of democracies’, and could this approach address the challenges posed by China more effectively than existing formats of co-operation?
Summary of main arguments
- The ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept intersects vast geographical areas and encompasses geopolitics, trade, development, maritime security and human security, emphasising the interconnectedness and the interdependence of the two oceans. This is not a homogenous region and UK policy should understand and respond to this reality. Regional states’ policy-making reflects their difficult strategic situations and myriad security and development issues.
- Security does exist solely in the realm of military security. Moreover, how security is conceived and the lines between national, regional and international security are increasingly blurred. The security issues for most states in the region have mutually interdependent and overlapping effects, and ought to be considered as requiring an holistic approach to problem-solving and capacity-building, most notably in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. The range of regional security issues is extensive, including traditional and non-traditional security issues.
- The notion of an ‘alliance of democracies’ conjures up formalised military and security cooperation (akin to NATO). The primary function of an alliance is typically military and implies the need for protection against a military security threat. Not only is an ‘alliance’ of this type undesirable in the region, nor are the world’s democracies aligned or coordinated in their response to global transformations. 20th century thinking about security narrows the scope of opportunities of cooperation between democracies in the spheres of e.g. trade, climate, development, digital and physical infrastructure development, cyber security and space.
- The Indo-Pacific tilt, as outlined in the March 2021 Integrated Review, presents a calibrated statement of intent. The action points set out in the review will guide UK policy as government departments works on developing a sustained (so-called ‘persistent’) Indo-Pacific presence and the short, medium, and longer term trade, development, diplomatic and military strategies towards the region and towards China.
- This region contains the world’s most crucial sea routes, and the world’s most populous nations. As the world’s most dynamic region, it requires high levels of infrastructure investment to meet the high energy demands that fuel its economic growth. The UK will need a multi-dimensional and flexible approach to the challenges – of managing relations with China – and to the trade and development opportunities the Indo-Pacific region presents. China frequently uses economic tools to achieve foreign policy goals (e.g. against Australian exports) and the UK government must be prepared for future action of this type to be taken against the UK.
- While ‘Indo-Pacific’ is a useful catch all term, for the purposes of UK policy-making, it is also helpful to bear in mind that the sub-regions are culturally diverse, presenting huge variation in the prioritisation of traditional and non-traditional security concerns. States across the Indo-Pacific are at various stages of economic development; political regimes vary from democracy to authoritarian or military junta, with some more stable than others; and some have a history of European colonisation, retaining, in some cases, trade, military and/or political connections with former colonial powers. Finally, the economic, political and security connections within and between the states and sub-regions are in many cases under-developed.
Regional Security Issues
Regional security priorities can be grouped into four broad areas:
- There are a number of localised non-traditional maritime security threats, such as piracy; trafficking of arms, narcotics and persons; and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. There are some coordination frameworks in place but these need strengthening.
- In the South China Sea, the Chinese maritime militia (armed fishing vessels), supported by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) and Chinese Coastguard (CGC) maintain a persistent presence to frighten off Vietnamese and Filipino civilian fishing vessels. A new Chinese law, effective Februrary 2021, authorises the Chinese Coastguard to fire on foreign ships operating in disputed waters claimed by Beijing in the South (and East) China Sea.
- China is also pursuing the objective of enhancing its long-term resource security by ensuring its control over hydrocarbon and fishing resources in the South China Sea. Since the mid-2000s, China has contested and blocked development of offshore gas/oil fields by foreign companies and has engaged in activities to deter foreign oil companies from exploration and development activities with other claimant states (primarily Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines). Foreign or joint oil/gas exploration opportunities are limited by pressure from China and the continual and unrelenting hassling of civilian vessels by China’s maritime militia.
- In the East China Sea, China’s strategy appears to involve normalising its presence and exercising control around the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. In the past year, China has sent increasing numbers of fishing vessels and maritime militia, supported by its militarised Chinese coastguard vessels into the waters surrounding the islands to intimidate and deter Japanese fishing vessels.
- In the Taiwan Strait, Chinese military aircraft crossed the median line several times in 2020. In September 2020, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed that the median line dividing the Taiwan Strait between China and Taiwan no longer existed. This admission is part of a much broader and more threatening trend by Beijing to pressurise Taiwan.
- In Southeast Asia, states are at various stages of democratic development but democratic norms are in regression across the sub-region – in Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar and Cambodia. This regression has roots in domestic factors and has been exacerbated by Covid emergency measures. Externally, the increasing regional influence of China, and the reticence of major democracies to advocate for democracy weaken fledgling democracies.
- There are also illiberal democratic trends in South Asia, with nationalistic “strongman” leaders replacing liberal ones in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the past decade. The retreat from liberal democracy is marked by a decline in independent institutions, limits on freedom of expression and safety concerns among religious minorities. Causes of this shift are attributed to their respective domestic security situations – a rise in terrorist events (India, Sri Lanka), and military skirmishes across contested borders (India). In Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh, liberal-style parties have become tainted by corruption, with inffectual leaders and inaction.
- Beijing oversaw the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong in June 2020, citing it as an internal matter. This law created new enforcement mechanisms, increased Beijing’s oversight of Hong Kong and has effectively ended the exercise of individual civil liberties through the vaguely defined offences in violation of national security.
- China’s systematic repression of the Uighur (and Kazakh) ethnic populations (Turkic-speaking Muslim minorities) in Xinjiang continues apace: extreme and sophisticated surveillance and monitoring measures, a vast network of re-education camps, forced labour, the systematic eradication of Uighur culture and language and forced sterilisation and birth control to suppress the birth rate in the Uighur population. China denies it is imposing coercive birth control measures.
Impact of transnational security issues (e.g. climate change)
- Parts of the Indo-Pacific region are highly exposed to climate change impacts, which are likely to create a new range of threats to the well-being and security of people and countries in the region. These threats include increased food and water insecurity, contribute to forced migration and displacement, and challenge humanitarian assistance and disaster response and recovery capabilities (HADR).
- The Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with existing complex challenges, highlights the need to plan for HADR capacities in the event of multiple, overlapping hazards and converging security risks.
Shifts in regional order
- The Indo-Pacific is predicted to be the centre of geopolitics and geoeconomics this century and is increasingly viewed as the area in which security, economic, and political competition will unfold. On the rise are trade wars, cyber-attacks, misinformation campaigns, military modernisation, and disputes over international law and norms, set against the COVID-19 pandemic.
- China seeks to realise its own visions for global governance, starting in its near neighbourhood. This advance has been primarily carried out under President Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and includes the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). It power has been further extended to include the Digital Silk Route (DSR) that sees China’s growing influence in telecoms infrastructure, e-commerce platforms, smart cities, and surveillance technologies. China is offering an alternative model that focuses on new forms of institutions and bilateral partnerships, with a heavy emphasis on both economic and digital infrastructure development. It is essentially promoting its own standards globally in emerging technologies.
A UK approach to the Indo-Pacific region
I have deconstructed how the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt can contribute to regional stability in four ways: pragmatic, purposeful, proactive and in partnership.
- By managing relations and commitments based on practical considerations. For instance, what steps will be undertaken after CSG21 leaves the Indo-Pacific to realise the UK’s persistent regional presence? Is the purpose clear to regional states?
- What are UK priorities in reference to its integrated strategy on defence, development, diplomacy and trade? Is it clear where these elements intersect?
- By playing to UK strengths in achieving its regional aims (e.g. in financial, legal, cyber and intelligence sectors) and not over-promising and under-delivering.
- By proving to regional partners its seriousness to maintain a sustained regional presence – starting with confidence-building measures.
- By realising the challenge of seeking to work with China on trade and transnational issues such as climate change, while pushing back against China diplomatically. China’s practice of its so-called ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy – the assertive, nationalistic tone used in diplomatic exchanges – and its resistance to what it deems to be international ‘scolding’ should be factored into UK diplomacy.
- By showing determination and resolve in sustaining the maritime and trade rules-based order(s) alongside other like-minded states. While China’s expansion is meeting growing economic, political and military resistance from the US, India, Japan, Australia and others., their resistance is not uniform or unified.
- Reinforcing global standards on infrastructure development: Beyond the CPTPP, the UK could become integral to the Blue Dot Network. Formed by Australia, US and Japan in November 2019, the purpose is to bring together governments, the private sector and civil society groups under shared standards for global infrastructure development by certifying infrastructure projects that demonstrate adherence to global infrastructure principles.
- Continuing engagement with multinational and bilateral maritime exercises and interoperability with key allies: Routine maritime exercises such as RIMPAC (the Royal Navy participates in RIMPAC), Malabar (Indian Ocean), SITMEX (Singapore-India-Thailand Maritime Exercise) are key opportunities to support capacity-building, to work on interoperability and collaboration, to offer HADR training and to defend peace and stability in the regional maritime sphere with like-minded partners.
Through its ‘Global Britain’ vision, the UK has the intention of creating opportunities, to be innovate and agile wherever possible. This could be achieved by:
- Utilising UK’s soft power advantages: Making the most of UK soft power advantages (e.g. actively promoting UK higher education, fostering cultural ties especially in the Commonwealth network, publicising work opportunities in the NHS and the UK Armed Forces [Commonwealth], including International Officer training).
- Increasing opportunities for Defence Engagement: Increased defence engagement with regional allies and partners: e.g. short term training teams in SE Asia and the Pacific Islands, thereby combining UK and local expertise in local conditions.
- Working closely with European partners in the Indo-Pacific region: The impact of the rise of China is felt in Europe (e.g. via the 17+1 format of China-CEEC cooperation). The acknowledgement of opportunies and challenges has contributed to the publication of French, Dutch and German Indo-Pacific strategies in 2018 and 2020 respectively. Deepening Anglo-French bilateral coordination in the Indo-Pacific could shape the framework for wider European strategic engagement.
- UK and French Indo-Pacific strategies have developed largely independently of each other and compete, for instance, over defence contracts. In 2021, the HMS Queen Elizabeth CSG and Charles de Gaulle aircraft carriers will separately deploy to the region – Pacific Ocean for the former, Indian Ocean for the latter.
- Therefore, France and the UK could better coordinate deployments of naval and air assets to achieve a ‘persistent’ European regional presence. For instance, the UK could be invited to participate in France’s naval Exercise La Perouse or Exercise Jeanne d’Arc. The UK and France could also coordinate their Freedom of Navigation operations across the Pacific Ocean to uphold the principle of UNCLOS. France conducted a FONOP in the South China Sea most recently in February 2021 and the UK in 2018.
- There is also potential to pool relevant expertise and resources (the UK in SE Asia and France in Oceania and both in the Indian Ocean) by contributing to capacity-building in cyber, lawfare and climate security.
- Setting regional climate and developmental standards: Japan is shaping up to be the UK’s most developed defence and security partnership outside Five Eyes. This partnership can be further developed through Japan’s focus on Oceania (primarily Palau, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga) for trade, investment and climate issues, with its engagement set to increase. Japan is well-represented across the region, with eight embassies, and a new one opening in Vanuatu. There are two potential additional areas for UK-Japanese collaboration:
- To work with Japan in offering alternative financial, infrastructure and developmental options to limit Chinese loans and investments and debt accrual.
- The UK will be integral to setting standards and opportunities for collaboration on climate issues during its hosting of COP26 in Glasgow in 2021. The UK could closely cooperate with Japan on climate issues since Japan has been addressing this regional priority largely ignored by the US and Australia for decades. Japan funded the construction of the Pacific Climate Change Center in Samoa, and hosts the summit-level Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM) every three years since 1997 (PALM 9 will be in June 2021).
- Each state has a different perspective on the Indo-Pacific construct and hence their expectations regarding a UK role differ. For instance, Japan’s strategy includes East Africa and the Middle East as part of its Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, which places trade (infrastructure and energy) at its core. India focuses on the Indian Ocean and Australia, with interests primarly in the Pacific, views the Indo-Pacific from a defensive security perspective with itself in the centre.
- Regional states identify security interests/threats in relation to their proximity to China, their relations with the US and on their own regional location/position. As US policy-makers have frequently observed, attempting to define, let alone deliver, a coherent one-size-fits-all strategy in the Indo-Pacific is impossible.
- The UK must to look to its own strenths and to those of its partners, because, unsurprisingly, the UK has limited financial resources, and numerous global commitments, and thus will need to make choices about which partner(s), where, and how it focuses its strategic attention. To this end, frequently reviewing and doubling down on the ‘integrated’ nature of the Integrated Review in matters of security, defence, development, foreign policy and trade by relevant government departments is crucial.
- The UK regional strategy will need flexibility to manage the broad range of perspectives, and prioritise working with regional states in relation to their capabilities and requirements, while also taking account of UK interests and resources at its disposal to add value. The UK ought to sustain a fluid and developing strategy towards China and the Indo-Pacific, recognising that ‘security’ is a broad and fluid concept and comes in many shapes.
Broadly speaking, regional partners will expect the UK:
- to have a clear purpose and clearly defined objectives,
- to respect sovereignty and regional states’ interests and needs,
- to be a reliable regional actor with the ability to sustain its regional presence,
- to think about British regional investment (people, development, diplomacy etc) in the long term, and,
- to avoid any activities that are deemed to be part of a broader strategy aimed at containing China.
The UK can developing sustained and sustainable regional partnerships:
- By exhibiting a sustained and sustainable regional presence (trade, development, diplomatic) to boost regional confidence that the UK is a serious player in the region. For instance, a visible and engaged high level diplomatic presence at regional forums.
- Through confidence-building measures such as building the institutional frameworks for partnerships. This could be through the establishment of bilateral strategic and economic dialogue partnerships, maintaining a high level presence at track 1.5 and track 2 regional dialogues (e.g. at The Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, and at the IISS Shangri-La Security Dialogue)
- By acknowledging the legacy of European colonisation across South and Southeast Asia. Further, and to recognise regional cooperation preferences (i.e. the ‘ASEAN Way’ and the need to develop consensus across the 10 ASEAN nations).
- By not creating difficulties for regional states by forcing a strategic or economic choice between the US and China.
The UK can deepen ties to regional organisations:
- By actively upholding the rules-based order in the maritime and trade spheres. The UK’s decision to join ASEAN as a dialogue partner and to adhere to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), and the application to join the CPTPP trade agreement are positive steps in this direction.
- By working through the existing regional institutional frameworks as a dialogue partner, notably, ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum and potentially setting up a UK-APEC dialogue partnership.
- By leveraging relationships with Commonwealth countries in the region – a start has been made with the re-establishment of three diplomatic missions in the Pacific Islands.
Constructing an ‘alliance of democracies’
- The small steps being taken to advance the values and interests of the world’s liberal democracies are important ones. With the UK taking the lead on this initiative, the 2021 G7 meeting that expands the G7, albeit informally, into a ‘democracy grouping’ to include Australia, the EU, India and South Korea is one such step forward.
- However, the UK’s European and Indo-Pacific like-minded partners are divided on the best way to approach the relative strategic shifts in power between the US and China. The EU is also struggling to achieve EU-27 consensus on its Indo-Pacific and China strategies.
- There appears to be growing appeal among liberal democracies to create groupings that promote and protect democratic principles and interests. However, the intent behind these groupings must be focused on positive and active promotion of democratic values and practices through the maintenance of a consistent narrative and to develop resilience to mitigate the challenges to those values and practices (e.g. open trade, open seas, human rights).
- Small, plurilateral groupings offer a greater degree of flexibility for like minded states to cooperate on single issues, while continuing to work through international institutions by strengthening lobbying, pushing action behind the scenes.
- A renewed effort to reform international institutions and to present a united front in their adherence to existing standards and practices is essential. China’s willingness and ability to promote an alternative narrative on multilateral treaties and organisations has exposed structural weaknesses in the present multilateral system. Some of China’s most successful tactics in the UN include its hard lobbying, crowding UN meetings and dictating the language used in joint statements and documents.
I identify two areas in which the UK can lead: promoting global trade standards and protecting democracy:
- Promote global trade standards: It is the responsibility of liberal democracies to promote and strengthen the existing institutions and mechanisms of global trade, including setting new global standards for rules-based digital growth.
- China’s near monopoly on 5G is used for commercial and strategic gain, with Beijing trying to set new rules and norms on telecoms, smart cities and surveillance that favour Beijing – despite the security concerns. There is scope for like-minded democracies and liberal states to work closely with ASEAN to develop transparent, rules-based digital growth, to provide alternatives to Chinese companies such as Huawei. This move would build on PM Johnson’s efforts to create an alternative pool of suppliers of 5G equipment and other technologies through the D10.
- There is scope for deeper trade relations between democracies, not to forge an exclusive club, but to strengthen global trade governance and to influence others to improve their domestic standards. Free trade agreements such as the CPTPP which seek to improve standards across the signatories ultimately help reinforce and make resilient existing trade rules. As a member, the UK could be integral to developing regional digital trade standards.
- Protect democracy: Protecting democracy includes, but is not limited to, rhetorical solidarity with regional allies that get caught in China’s assertive diplomacy (e.g. joint statements on Hong Kong, in support of Australia, or over Xinjiang). Statements of support are only one aspect of assurance.
- More concrete support could be provided in trade terms to support regional democracies, including Taiwan. A formal UK-Taiwan trade deal and greater bilateral cooperation in other areas such as education and human rights would help bolster Taiwan’s democracy, lend credence to its international status, and reinforce its resistance to continual intimidation from the PRC in its attempts to diplomatically isolate Taipei. As a strong democracy, the UK could also invite Taiwan to join the D10 grouping.
- The “Community of Democracies” intergovernmental forum, of which the UK is a member, could be bolstered and expanded. Through this mechanism, the UK could host a series of democracy-boosting sessions to foster greater solidarity with global democracies beyond the D10, following up on President Biden’s summit of democracy.
- International institutions, a cornerstone of the existing order, must remain at its centre. Any democracy grouping must continue to work within existing regional and international institutions, despite their problems. This is to ensure inclusion. In the longer term, the goal mut be to reform and strengthen them and to continue to promote the rules-based model that has sustained international order and relative peace and stability since 1945.