Quad’s Indo-Pacific maritime initiative raises more questions than answers
- Although the maritime partnership is being presented primarily as a tracking system to curb China’s illegal fishing, it can easily be applied to other activities, including intelligence gathering
- Is the initiative’s purpose to protect fisheries or could it be a Trojan horse for the Quad’s militaries?
That data will be provided to a network of surveillance centres in India, Singapore, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. These centres will integrate the data with that from other sources, such as maritime reconnaissance aircraft and vessels, and share it through their networks.
But what is the initiative’s geographic focus? According to the fact sheet, it will “transform the ability of partners in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean region to fully monitor the waters on their shores and, in turn, to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
Does “on their shores” mean within their 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone? Does it include disputed areas? It apparently does not include the Yellow, East China and Japan seas. If that’s the case, why not?
Is its purpose to protect fisheries or could it be a Trojan horse for the Quad’s militaries? As a clue, the fact sheet adds that “as the initiative proceeds, the Quad will identify future technologies of promise, allowing [the initiative] to remain a cutting-edge partnership that promotes peace and stability throughout the region”. At least one US naval expert foresees that including deterrence and coercion of “malefactors”.
For example, a senior US official said “the data will be unclassified which will allow the Quad to provide it to a wide range of partners who wish to benefit”, which would allow militaries to share the data for coalition planning.
Moreover, since many countries – especially the small Pacific island nations – lack enforcement capability, will this fall to the US and its partners, thus legitimising their coastguard or even naval presence in these states’ waters?
Once the data genie is out of the bottle, it will have many uses – not all predictable or beneficial to all parties. For example, if the system is to be used for quasi-military purposes, who and what will be targeted? What about leaks, which could allow smugglers and other illegal actors to know where the enforcement is likely to come from and avoid it?
Some warships and warplanes also turn off their identification systems when undertaking sensitive missions. Are the US and its partners shooting themselves in the foot or will they implement this initiative in such a way as to disadvantage their potential foes?
Will it expose clandestine practices? For example, the US and perhaps others’ spy planes use “false flag” electronic identification codes to collect intelligence on China’s defences. This is contrary to the “international order” the US professes to uphold.
So will the US and others whose assets may be outed welcome this aspect of the system? Or will the system somehow exclude such clandestine actors?
Also, many Asian countries view their neighbours as potential enemies and are reluctant to reveal in real time the deployment of their assets. Again, will they be included or excluded?
Is this system to target only China’s fishing, maritime militia and naval vessels and aircraft? If so, that seems rather provocative and unfair.
Under European Union regulations, non-EU countries identified as turning a blind eye to illegal fishing may be issued a formal warning or “yellow card”. Vietnam has been issued a yellow card. So have the Philippines, Thailand and Taiwan, but their cards have now been lifted. China has never received a yellow card.
The Indo-Pacific maritime domain awareness initiative faces many practical problems in its implementation. Technical interoperability challenges as well as different institutional and bureaucratic practices must be overcome.
The initiative raises many difficult questions and is full of potential pitfalls and blowbacks. To avoid these negative effects, it should be very carefully thought through by all concerned parties before it is implemented.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China