Why the Quad should focus on collaborative not collective defence

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.

In my next article, I’ll explore how the Quad can best deter China as a collaborative defence arrangement.