When the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States (US) meet for just the second time in-person as Quad in Japan this month, the focus will likely be on their economic partnership. A trade deal is currently out of the question: New trade deals lack support in the US Congress. But the US has proposed an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to promote economic connectivity, resilience, sustainability, and accountability and has been in the process of consulting partners on this initiative. While in some ways an extension of US President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, IPEF’s success will hinge on its details, and the response and participation of other countries.
But amid its growing profile, activities, and importance, Quad should not lose sight of security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which will matter significantly for the regional balance of power. Over the past year, Quad cooperation on a number of other important areas has progressed considerably. These include critical and emerging technology cooperation, vaccine diplomacy, infrastructure, humanitarian assistance, scientific collaboration, and space. Some initiatives are still nascent, while others — such as on Covid-19 vaccines and university research fellowships — have received private sector support and will have near-term tangible outcomes.
To be fair, Quad security cooperation is already underway. In readouts, the four countries have revealed discussions on Myanmar, Afghanistan, North Korea, and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. Intelligence leaders and cybersecurity coordinators from the four countries have met as a group. The Malabar naval exercise brings together the four navies, which have also engaged in ad hoc exercises with Canada and South Korea (on anti-submarine warfare), the United Kingdom (UK), and France.
But security cooperation among Quad countries remains largely bilateral. The four engage in 2+2 dialogues with each other, involving their foreign and defence ministers. They also hold military staff talks; organise military exercises, involving ground, air, and maritime forces; enjoy logistics-sharing agreements with each other; and have structured dialogues on maritime security, defence technology, and counter-terrorism. Recently, Japan and Australia concluded an agreement to facilitate a military presence on each other’s soil. The US and Australia (along with the UK) entered into an arrangement, known as AUKUS, to cooperate on sensitive technologies, including nuclear submarine propulsion.
There are three reasons for why security cooperation involving all four Quad countries has not been accorded a higher priority. First, there are concerns in other regional Indo-Pacific countries — including in South and Southeast Asia — that Quad military cooperation could exacerbate tensions with China, rather than reduce them. By contrast, the non-security focus of Quad has been welcomed in Southeast Asia; in one elite survey conducted last year, 60% of Southeast Asian respondents favoured a stronger Quad with a largely non-security focus.
Second, the bilateral security partnerships among Quad countries are different from each other and are, therefore, likely to progress at different rates. On one end of the spectrum, the US has decades-long alliances with Japan and Australia, which include a history of overseas basing and joint operations. By contrast, India’s security partnerships with Japan and Australia — despite impressive progress over the past two decades — is relatively new and is unlikely to resemble the US’s treaty alliances.
Third, the security partnership among Quad nations benefits from its flexibility. There is no political appetite or expectation of mutual defence. Quad will, therefore, not resemble an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In fact, closer cooperation is driven in large part by an acknowledgment of constrained resources. Budgetary constraints could mean that the US Navy will not be able to function in the Indian Ocean to meet future challenges, while an Indian naval presence east of the Malacca Strait will always be more limited. Quad is not about all four countries being everywhere at once, but, in fact, about a distribution of labour when it comes to security over a vast region.
Nonetheless, a lot can still be done. A first area of focus ought to be on information and intelligence sharing, including — but not restricted to — the maritime domain. This will require coordinating information from maritime patrol aircraft, drones, satellites, and submarine sensors. While cooperation on maritime domain awareness has increased bilaterally, information gathered by all four countries can be more seamlessly integrated to meet certain shared security objectives. This would complement the current intelligence liaison relationships among the four countries and the sharing of strategic assessments by officials.
A second area might involve operational cooperation. This can be done through cross-servicing, resupply and replenishment at sea, mid-air refuelling, ship repair, and a host of legal arrangements to facilitate such services. While in the past, Indian analysts have expressed concerns about such arrangements undermining Indian sovereignty, they need not be automatic or intrusive. Instead, India would benefit from such support to expand its military presence. Furthermore, such habits of cooperation could be utilised effectively against non-traditional security threats such as illegal fishing, piracy, smuggling, disaster relief, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
A third area of eventual cooperation might relate to improving defence capacity, including on trade, manufacturing, and technology. In all four countries, efforts are underway to indigenise defence production for security, economic, and political reasons. But joint efforts at integrating supply chains — particularly in less-sensitive areas — would complement the use by Quad countries of certain common platforms, such as aircraft and helicopters. Joint research and development may prove too complicated in most instances — given the differences in requirements and acquisition systems — but may be worth exploring in the future.
Quad has certainly come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, defying many sceptics’ predictions. To its credit, the Biden administration did not dispense with Quad despite its earlier association with Donald Trump administration. It has resulted in multiple structured contact points within the four governments and has improved technology and economic cooperation.
But if Quad is to help preserve a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, while continuing to provide the region with public goods, security cooperation will have to deepen. This will require acknowledging the concerns of partner countries, treading carefully, and slowly building trust and habits of cooperation. As the war between Russia and Ukraine has demonstrated, we are entering a dangerous new world, one in which the prospect of great power competition spilling over into great power conflict is no longer a remote possibility.