A Way Ahead for the Quad

By Charlie Lyons Jones

Critics of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Beijing in particular, have long portrayed the grouping of Australia, Japan, India and the US as a Trojan horse for an ‘Asian NATO’ designed to balance China’s growing power in the Indo-Pacific. Some proponents of the Quad have argued along similar lines, calling for an Indo-Pacific ‘strategy of collective defence’ to offset shortfalls in America’s regional military power and hold the line against rising Chinese strength.

Australia should resist calls for such a rigid multinational alliance.

It’s important to distinguish between ‘collective defence’ and ‘collaborative defence’. Collective defence implies that countries in the Indo-Pacific should pool resources in a unified, multinational command structure akin to NATO.

Collaborative defence is a much looser arrangement in which countries work together in different ways in different groupings on slightly different missions. Collaborative defence arrangements are the sum of bilateral and trilateral partnerships that are then operationalised as a broader regional grouping.

The broader grouping develops slowly with each meeting or exercise and without the rigidity of a collective alliance. That provides the tactical flexibility for bilateral or trilateral partnerships to be invoked in response to different threats in particular operational theatres at opportune times.

NATO’s collective defence regime was able to deter the Soviet Union precisely because it existed in continental Europe during the Cold War. With member states’ clearly defined spheres of influence, the declaration in Article 5 of the NATO treaty that an attack on one member state would be an attack on all member states had credibility.

Every NATO member had a common interest in ensuring that the Soviet Union would penetrate no further into Western Europe. The liberal democratic world was united in its determination to thwart the march of Soviet communism. If West Germany fell, the Netherlands would be next.

Once the Cold War ended, Soviet communism could march no longer. Democracy had won. In losing its strategic and ideological rival, NATO had lost its binding agent. The deterrent value of Article 5 had diminished.

After the Cold War, Russia noticed that NATO had lost its coherence as membership began expanding and its focus moved on to transnational threats such as terrorism. Vladimir Putin  modernised aspects of the Russian military to develop a force that could exploit a temporal advantage and use coercive tactics slightly below the threshold of armed conflict to secure a fait accompli. That way it could further undermine the deterrent force of Article 5 and make inroads into areas Putin deemed to be within Russia’s sphere of influence.

Crimea offers a good example. Russia exploited NATO disunity, and a lack of resolve in Washington, to annex part of Ukraine. It did so to a country on NATO’s periphery, and with minimal force. Ukraine wasn’t a NATO member, but it had developed a close relationship with the alliance and was considering joining, a prospect NATO officials took seriously.

In failing to support Ukraine even though NATO had a clear interest in deterring Russian expansionism, the US and NATO showed the limits of their collective defence regime.

Article 5 may have proved iron-clad had Russia attacked a NATO member, but it was useless in defending NATO’s periphery—and the sovereign right of a nation to join the alliance should it so choose.

Russia sowed discord within NATO and prevented it from defending its interests.

China has proved as adept with its militarisation of the South China Sea and its unilateral declaration of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea. In both cases, the US and its allies judged the use of military action against these egregious violations of international law to be disproportionate. But, in doing nothing, Washington succumbed to Beijing’s fait accompli.

Collective defence didn’t stop Russia from taking Crimea and it’s unlikely to have worked any better in denying Beijing the ability to militarise the South China Sea.

Washington now must ensure that the US and its allies don’t succumb to another such fait accompli. That effort needs to start with an understanding that collective defence has little chance of working in the Indo-Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific today is not at all like Western Europe was during the Cold War. Each Indo-Pacific nation has its own reasons to deter China.

Vietnam and India have fought China to protect territorial boundaries and harbour deep historical animosity towards Beijing. The Philippines and Indonesia reject China’s expansionist ‘nine-dash line’. Beijing claims Japan’s Senkaku islands and uses Tokyo’s behaviour in World War II for its own political gain. For Taiwan, deterring China is a matter of national survival.

The differing situations complicate coalition-building. Some countries are more willing to defy Beijing than others. This is altogether different from Western Europe’s unity in its determination to stop the Soviets.

In a hypothetical scenario, suppose the Chinese navy is exercising in the South China Sea. At the same time, China’s maritime militia attempts to land on the Taiwanese-held Pratas Island, drawing fire from the Taiwanese military. The navy is ordered to stop the exercise and go to the militia’s aid.

The Taiwanese military fires warning shots at China’s naval vessels. Beijing orders its military to seize Pratas. The air force’s fighter jets quickly overwhelm Taiwan’s defences and marines take the island.

Taipei, though not a member, enjoys a close relationship with a collective defence regime known as the Indo-Pacific Treaty Organisation, or IPTO. President Tsai Ing-wen asks the US and Australia for IPTO support. Both back intervention at an emergency IPTO meeting. Japan agrees, but Vietnam and the Philippines, which each have claims to another Taiwanese-held island, Itu Aba, object, each reasoning that advancing its claims to Itu Aba would be easier if Taiwan no longer held Pratas.

Without a consensus, IPTO provides no support for Taiwan. The US and Australia are wary of fighting a peer adversary and now believe it’s too late to act. Beijing strengthens its position and Taipei backs down. IPTO is forced to accept the island as de facto Chinese territory.

Beijing calculated that Washington needed unanimous support from IPTO and so targeted an island claimed by other IPTO allies. Division was sowed, indecision followed and Beijing won.

In this scenario, a looser, more flexible, collaborative defence arrangement would have made it harder for China to act. This is where a grouping like the Quad could prove its worth.

Without a multinational command structure in place, Washington could have invoked its Taiwan Relations Act and used forces on Okinawa to destroy Beijing’s fleet. Once hostilities escalated and Japanese territory was under threat, Tokyo could have deployed its considerable air and naval power to help. Canberra could have responded to a request from Washington to fly anti-submarine warfare aircraft around key chokepoints in the first island chain, while sending warships to support the Indian navy in a blockade of the Malacca Strait as the war dragged on.

The Quad could have become a rolling coalition, allowing countries to make unique contributions at key times to deprive Beijing of its ability to secure a fait accompli at each stage of conflict. The US and Japan would have borne the brunt of the initial fighting, and Australia and India would then have cut China’s logistical systems. Each country would have made a different contribution in a different operational theatre at a different time, gradually increasing the pressure on Beijing.

Instead of pooling resources to create an unwieldy blob, countries need to work bilaterally and trilaterally to respond in novel ways as the strategic environment changes because of China’s willingness to exploit a temporal advantage.

The Quad is a collaborative defence arrangement built off a network of bilateral and trilateral partnerships, making it flexible and responsive to diverse threats at different stages of conflict.

That structural agility makes it greater than the sum of its parts.

The effectiveness with which Russia and China have been able to exploit situations to make territorial gains has exposed a chronic vulnerability for collective defence regimes. Collective defence risks becoming unfit for an era of strategic competition in the grey zone.

The Quad implicitly acknowledges this and has developed as a collaborative defence arrangement that can respond to the sorts of threats China poses.

For the Quad to succeed in this way, Australia, India, Japan and the US will need to work together using force—or tactics that sit above or slightly below the threshold of armed conflict—to block Chinese attempts to seize territory. They’ll also need a coherent strategy to counter China’s other activities below the threshold of armed conflict.

This will require a broad understanding of defence using different elements of national power to counter a range of coercive threats. Each member will need to understand which levers should be pulled at what times in a coherent strategy that thwarts Beijing’s ability to achieve its political objectives at each stage of competition or conflict.

The more coercive the power China mobilises, the fewer levers of national power the Quad members would need to pull. In a hypothetical example in the first part of this series, I described how Quad members might develop an effective military response to a Chinese attempt to seize Pratas Island from Taiwan. In that case, the four members of the Quad would be pulling down heavily on the military levers of national power—albeit at different stages of the conflict and in different theatres.

Responding to the most coercive of China’s threats is the easiest part of the Quad’s job. It gets harder if China mobilises less coercive power when threatening the Quad’s interests in the Indo-Pacific. This is where the distinction between collective defence and collaborative defence becomes key.

Over time, China has reclaimed land and transformed islands into military facilities that have increased its ability to project power across the Western Pacific. This has raised the costs for the US to defend its treaty allies, which undermines its presence in Asia.

For Japan and Australia, China’s South China Sea facilities pose a threat to the freedom of navigation each relies on for trade.

In India, the stakes may not be as high, but any erosion of international norms in the South China Sea would set an unwelcome precedent as the Chinese military increases its presence in the Indian Ocean. So far, the differing stakes for each country in the Quad have made a collective response impossible.

However, an effective response to China’s grey-zone coercion need not be ‘collective’. In 2017, Ely Ratner, Biden’s top China adviser at the Pentagon, argued in Foreign Affairs that the US should  ‘abandon its neutrality and help countries in the region defend their claims’.

Ratner suggested that the US help treaty allies such as the Philippines with joint land-reclamation projects, increased arms sales and improved basing access. Other Quad members would also need to draw upon their own bilateral partnerships to help claimant states build resilience to Beijing’s grey-zone operations. The Quad would be a subtle means of helping Southeast Asian claimants defend their sovereignty against China’s creeping expansionism.

Ratner’s proposal shows collaborative defence in action with the aid of the Indo-Pacific’s established great power. While Washington is laying the groundwork to compete with China in the grey zone, Australia could strengthen its maritime capacity-building initiatives and joint naval exercises with Malaysia and Indonesia in archipelagic Southeast Asia.

India and Japan could each increase the frequency of their bilateral naval exercises with Vietnam. The Quad could agree to conduct Exercise Malabar in the South China Sea, while members of the ‘blue dot network’ could jointly finance critical infrastructure projects in littoral states. An effective strategy would require each Quad member to use a mix of diplomacy, aid, military exchanges, arms sales, joint exercises and new basing infrastructure.

None of these initiatives will achieve results immediately, but nor did China’s island-building campaign. Over time, each initiative will shift the burden of escalation back to China. With each Quad member working independently and collaboratively to embolden claimant states to defend their maritime rights, Beijing will incur new risks when rotating new fighters on Fiery Cross Reef or contemplating further incursions into the Natuna Islands.

Collaboration will allow each Quad member to find out how best to draw on its bilateral partnerships to embolden claimant states to defend their interests. The Quad will be invisible, but omnipresent in Southeast Asia. That’s precisely the threat that Beijing doesn’t want to deal with.

To succeed as a collaborative defence arrangement, the Quad needs to be guided by three principles. Its members need to work independently on their bilateral relationships to improve claimant states’ ability to defend their interests; they must exercise together whenever strategic circumstances require it; and they need to share notes on regional strategy, knowing it will be much harder for China to secure further territorial gains if it’s on the back foot.

Adhering to these principles will enable the Quad to realise its potential as a collaborative defence arrangement that can counter China’s grey-zone operations.

Charlie Lyons Jones is a researcher with ASPI’s defence, strategy and national security program.

This article was published in two parts, one on February 16, 2021 and the second on February 17, 2021.

The featured photo: Kiyoshi Ota/Pool/AFP/Getty Images