Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 24 September 2021

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Quad must be a seagoing deterrent

It will be decades before Australia deploys its nuclear submarines. All the Quad members have an interest in filling that maritime gap.

Tom Corben and Ashley Townshend

Sep 24, 2021 – 1.47pm

Unlike last week’s AUKUS surprise, the Quad Leaders’ Summit in Washington, DC, is set to focus on geoeconomics, critical technology, health security and climate change. These are pressing regional issues over which Australia, India, Japan and the United States must work to increase their capacity for collective action.

But the four leaders must also find time to discuss the rapidly deteriorating strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific – and return this issue to the top of their agenda.

Australia is already involved with Indian, US and Japanese naval operations. Supplied

Time is not on our side. Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines will play a significant role in upholding a favourable balance of power towards the end of the 2030s. That’s a very long time to wait.

In the intervening decades, it’s critical that Australia gets its security partnerships and high-end defence networks such as the Quad working better to meet the military challenges China is posing today.

This requires the Quad to sharpen its focus on the maritime domain.

A second summit in just eight months shows the Quad’s leaders are ambitious about taking their policy agenda up a gear. Progress on cyber security, critical technologies, health and supply chain security will signal the Quad is serious about providing public goods for the Indo-Pacific – and competing with China for influence in the process.

But maritime security remains a primary point of convergence between the Quad members’ regional strategic interests. All are concerned about China’s fast-growing navy, expanding strategic presence and capacity to coerce regional nations and erode freedom of navigation.

The Indo-Pacific strategic order is rapidly deteriorating and only collective efforts can hold the line.

All have also expressed a desire to collectively deter Beijing from military adventurism – an objective that is beginning to evolve into reality.

Major maritime drills such as the annual Malabar exercises – Australia has been included since 2020 – have become important fixtures for Quad nations to deepen interoperability. There’s also been a proliferation of “Quad minus” exercises among a subset of members focused on anti-submarine warfare and maritime domain awareness.

The Quad should now translate these exercises into peacetime deterrence operations.

Coordinated naval and anti-submarine warfare patrols in key regional waterways from the Indian Ocean to the East China Sea would send a powerful message of the Quad’s collective resolve and readiness to act in the event of a Chinese provocation.

Such operations should leverage the advanced air and naval capabilities of all four partners to full effect. Quad militaries operate increasingly sizable and sophisticated maritime forces, including derivatives of the advanced P-8 maritime patrol aircraft as well as surface ships outfitted for theatre defence and anti-submarine warfare.

Collective defence

Operational coordination among these platforms is required to keep China’s growing naval power and submarine forces in check, and could strengthen deterrence against its maritime coercion. High-end military cooperation between the region’s major defence players is also critical for implementing what we have called a “strategy of collective defence”.

It’s encouraging to see this collective agenda is now being adopted by Quad members themselves.

At their March summit, the Quad leaders agreed to “facilitate collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order” in the Indo-Pacific. Ministers Marise Payne and Peter Dutton did the same with their Japanese counterparts in June, committing to “targeted, effective and practical” air and naval activities. Earlier this month, Australian and Indian foreign ministers noted the need to “reinforce each other’s maritime domain awareness through information sharing and practical cooperation.”

Indeed, much of the groundwork for defence cooperation has already being laid. Last week’s AUSMIN flagged major advances in Australia-US force posture, including more rotations of US aircraft and warships through Australian bases, and the establishment of a joint maritime logistics, sustainment and maintenance hub to support allied military operations.

These initiatives could soon see US maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft take advantage of Australia’s considerable investments in forward operating infrastructure on the Cocos Islands and at RAAF bases Darwin and Pearce.

Access could be extended to other Quad countries in future.

Australia’s new Maritime Logistics Support Agreement with India and pending Reciprocal Access Agreement with Japan will pave the way for both to use defence infrastructure and logistics facilities in Australia’s north. They will allow Australian forces to do the same at more operating locations in the Indian Ocean and East China Sea, just as US forces have done with growing frequency.

Other measures such as a standing Indo-Pacific Naval Task Force reportedly being considered by the Biden administration would provide additional means of integrating Quad partners for peacetime deterrence operations.

Establishing these patterns of cooperation is a heavy lift. Securing and harmonising access, intelligence and logistics-sharing agreements between the four nations is a time-consuming but essential business. Only then can genuine collective deterrence operations take place.

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