The Quad’s future as a collaborative defence arrangement

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.