Last month, the top leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States assembled for the first leader-level summit of the so-called “Quad.”  This dialogue partnership dates to 2007 and is built on a foundation laid during the cooperative response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. After wallowing in diplomatic doldrums, the recurring ministerial-level events held during the tenures of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump put wind into its sails. The fact that President Joe Biden made it a point to host the group so early in his tenure suggests sustained commitment to ensuring that the Quad’s work continues to build speed. However, the course of the Quad remains uncharted. While the four leaders may share similar worldviews and have demonstrated broad consensus regarding the value of meeting for dialogue, there is divergence among their preferred approaches to the most vexing challenges. Furthermore, residual mistrust impedes the close cooperation necessary to establish an alliance. Still, the leaders’ official statement and their joint op-ed in the Washington Post give plenty of guidance for officials to start taking workman-level action for the real benefit of maritime Asia.

Despite lacking strategic alignment across the full spectrum of security issues, the Quad members mostly see eye to eye regarding many elements in the maritime domain. This should enable the group to stand up as an operating framework for the free and legal use of the Indo-Pacific’s maritime space. The four members are those states that have shown the greatest committed capacity to ensuring the seas remain a free and open resource that enables the flow of commerce and information. These powers are also the region’s essential cartographic cardinal points. Their actions can set the regional standards for the Indo-Pacific and establish baseline mechanisms for wider cooperation.

In their joint statement, the leaders pledged to “facilitate collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.” They also highlighted the importance of freedom of navigation and emphasized the priority they place on international law in the maritime domain, particularly as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Some misread this text as a clarion call for a naval pushback against the aggressive and illegal actions that have been taken by China, particularly in the South China Sea.

The Quad is not going to play a major military role any time soon. In October 2020, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga kicked off his administration with a trip to Vietnam and Indonesia where he repeatedly reassured his partners that Japan does not intend to create an “Asian NATO,” a thinly veiled reference to his limited ambitions concerning the Quad. Similarly, on the eve of the March Quad Summit, Prime Minister Scott Morrison pointedly stated that the Quad will remain informal. India’s diplomatic protests against U.S. Navy operations within India’s exclusive economic zone earlier this month reveal another gap in the Quad’s strategic front. Still, there is a great deal the Quad can do that will simultaneously serve each state’s respective national interest and be of great immediate value to maritime Asia.

In recent years, the Quad has focused progress on enhancing naval interoperability and improving maritime intelligence and information cooperation. Naval interoperability was highlighted by the 2020 return of the Royal Australian Navy to the Malabar exercise which since 2016 had been a trilateral India-Japan-U.S. event. Once upon a time, Malabar was more show than substance. In those days, its greatest value was as a diplomatic symbol. But in recent years it has progressed to feature advanced tactics and serious training for potential cooperative warfighters.

Maritime intelligence and information cooperation can include the coordination of reconnaissance flights and the development of channels to share more sensitive information as appropriate. Such sharing provides added value as it enables the deconfliction and optimization of resources. Such efficiency is important because, despite their large economies, none of the Quad members have surpluses to squander. Improved information enables stronger and better-aimed actions.

While improved naval interoperability and expanded information sharing will be valuable to the members, the speed of advance will be restrained by geopolitical considerations. There are other areas where the Quad should act now to bring more immediate benefits to regional maritime security.

Logistics cooperation, mutual access, and coordinated maritime capacity building are three areas where the Quad’s maritime staff officers could make progress immediately. These are relatively non-controversial areas for cooperation that are less likely to encounter domestic opposition, trigger Chinese fears of encirclement, or raise the concerns of regional partners. These are also the areas where reaching outcomes takes time and technical attention to get right. They are not the types of issues states want to be figuring out only after they have encountered a crisis.

With the signing of the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) between India and Australia in June 2020, all of the bilateral partnerships within the Quad now include an MLSA or Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement. Having these arrangements in place is the first step toward cooperative logistics, but these must be developed, tested, and practiced through regular use. Such cooperation not only creates resource-saving efficiencies but, by leaning on each other’s logistics networks, partners gain expanded operational flexibility. Where possible, these procedures should be standardized. Such streamlining lowers transaction costs and makes templating easier for other growing maritime relationships in the region. In this way, Quad cooperation can empower similar efficiencies among other like-minded regional states.

The Quad members should also get to work enabling easy access to each other’s ports and airfields.  Implementation of the Japan-Australia Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) will mean that all the partnerships within the Australia-Japan-U.S. trilateral relationship have an RAA or Status of Forces Agreement. Similar arrangements should be developed with India. While traditions of non-alignment and domestic sensitivities must be respected, it is not unreasonable to establish relations such that Quad-member vessels are regularly visiting India for resupply, crew rest, and confidence building without having to break through the unfamiliar procedures and bureaucratic red tape currently encountered at every level from the ministerial staff down through to the harbormaster’s office. Familiarity and ease of access could lay the foundations for more valuable options. For example, Carnegie Foundation researcher Darshana Baruah has made very interesting proposals about the value of allowing mutual access to Indian Ocean airfields such as those in Australia’s Cocos (Keeling) and India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands to enable improved maritime domain awareness.

The development of cooperative maritime security capacity-building projects is a third area ripe for immediate Quad action. Making Indo-Pacific sealanes more safe and secure is of direct relevance to all four Quad members’ interests. Physical geography and the terms of UNCLOS dictate that coastal states bear the bulk of the responsibility for safeguarding chokepoints, but many lack the capacity to deal with the host of threats that include environmental disasters, criminals, and terrorists. While these states are generally concerned with the dangers associated with great power competition, these non-state threats take their citizens’ lives, cripple their economic prosperity, and drain the resources of their maritime security agencies on a daily basis. Therefore, these states are generally quite ready for capacity-building assistance so long as it is sensitive to their priorities and respects their sovereign rights. By coordinating their efforts, the Quad members can more efficiently improve the security of the seas for all nations’ traffic, enable coastal states to become more capable in dealing with the full range of maritime threats, and forge the surest path to trust and cooperation with vital maritime partners.

Shortfalls in strategic alignment and insufficient mutual trust constrain the Quad from evolving into a formal arrangement or a military alliance in the immediate future. A future where continued aggressive and illegal actions by China drive these states into closer strategic alignment is certainly possible. In fact, many would argue such a future is most likely. While geopolitical forces control the pace of Quad efforts to build interoperability and enhance intelligence coordination, the members’ maritime planners should steam forward at full speed with initiatives focused on logistics cooperation, mutual access, and coordinated maritime capacity building. This work will provide the essential foundations for the type of military cooperation that will be desired when greater strategic alignment exists. At the same time, work in these three areas would not undermine the possibility of an alternate future where all states in the Indo-Pacific, including China, behave with respect for international law and support the free and open flow of commerce and information. In either future, the Quad’s leadership in these areas can provide frameworks that provide opportunities for all states to improve their efficient cooperation against the full spectrum of maritime threats.

About John Bradford

John Bradford is a Senior Fellow in the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.