Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: The Quad Squad

Sean Quirk
Tuesday, March 16, 2021, 8:01 AM

Return of the Quad, China’s “real combat” training, and maritime lawfare in the East and South China Seas.

U.S. and Japanese warships conduct a bilateral exercise in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 28. (Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erik Melgar.)

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The Biden administration continues to focus its diplomatic energy on the Indo-Pacific, hosting a virtual summit for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) and deploying senior officials to Asia to repair regional alliances. Meanwhile, regional disputes over national and international law are driving tensions in the East China Sea and South China Sea. The United States is seeking to work with its allies and partners to confront an increasingly assertive maritime posture from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Return of the Quad

On March 12, the four heads of state from the nations of the Quad convened virtually. It was the first-ever official meeting with leaders of all four Quad countries: Australia, India, Japan and the United States. Following the summit, a joint statement highlighted the nations’ shared concerns over “COVID-19, the threat of climate change, and security challenges facing the region.” The statement also explicitly stated the Quad’s “strong support” for unity among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that the Quad “committed to delivering up to one billion doses” of coronavirus vaccines to ASEAN, the broader Indo-Pacific and beyond by the end of 2022.

In the maritime domain, the Quad leaders cited the role of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) “to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.” Maritime coordination among the Quad navies has increased in recent years, with the Royal Australian Navy joining U.S., Japanese and Indian forces in November 2020 for the annual Malabar naval exercise. It was the first time Australia had participated in the exercise since 2007.

Absent from the official Quad statement was any mention of China—the implicit strategic driver of the Quad’s inception in 2007 and the group’s recent resurgence. However, Sullivan told reporters that the Quad leaders discussed China’s recent “[economic] coercion of Australia, their harassment around the Senkaku Islands, [and] their aggression on the border with India.” A March 8 article in the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, dismissed the “Quad alliance countering China” as “doomed to fail.” The article cited “Chinese experts” for the notion that the Quad countries have diverging interests that will ultimately render the Quad an “empty talk club.”

The importance of the Quad and the Indo-Pacific in the Biden administration is clear. In their first trip abroad since assuming office, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin began their travels to Japan and South Korea (a potential “Quad+” member) on March 15 to strengthen alliances with both countries. Austin will travel on to India from March 19 to March 21, where he will meet with the Indian defense minister and other officials. Meanwhile, Blinken will join Sullivan to meet their Chinese counterparts for talks in Alaska.

On March 3, Blinken gave a speech that outlined the “eight top foreign policy priorities of the Biden administration.” Blinken defined the eighth and final priority as managing the U.S.-China relationship—the “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.” Blinken distinguished China as “the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system.” He called on the need to work with allies and partners in order to “engage China from a position of strength.” The remarks echoed those of CIA director nominee William Burns to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 24, in which he said he would intensify the CIA’s approach to counter China if confirmed to run the agency.

Similarly, Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Adm. Philip Davidson told the Senate Armed Service Committee on March 9 that the “greatest danger the United States and [its] allies face in the region is the erosion of conventional deterrence vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China.” He said that China will have more aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships in the region than the U.S. Navy by 2025: China will have three carriers and six amphibious assault ships, compared to one U.S. carrier and two amphibious assault ships. Davidson characterized this military “imbalance” in the Indo-Pacific as “accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response.” Indo-Pacific Command has submitted a spending proposal to Congress for a “network of precision-strike missiles along the so-called first island chain” as part of the $27.4 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative aimed at China. Reiterating recent Biden administration pronouncements, Davidson said the key to effective deterrence was U.S. allies and partners. He called the Quad “a diamond of democracies” that should address issues broader than only defense, such as regional economic and technological challenges.

Maritime Lawfare

In the East China Sea

On Feb. 19, the U.S. State Department joined Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in expressing concern over China’s newly enacted China Coast Guard law. Passed on Jan. 22, the law from China’s National People’s Congress took effect Feb. 1. Article 20 of the statute authorizes the China Coast Guard to demolish structures on reefs in China’s “jurisdiction,” and Article 22 authorizes the China Coast Guard to “use all necessary measures including weapons” when China’s “national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed by foreign organizations and individuals at sea.” The U.S. State Department said, “Language in the law ... allowing the Coast Guard to destroy other countries’ economic structures and to use force in defending China’s maritime claims in disputed areas [] strongly implies this law could be used to intimidate the PRC’s maritime neighbors.”

The law is of particular relevance for the Senkaku Islands (Mandarin: Diàoyú dǎo) in the East China Sea. Two China Coast Guard vessels repeatedly entered the territorial seas surrounding the Senkakus on Feb. 20 and 21; it was the ninth Chinese intrusion of 2021. Japan claims and administers the Senkakus, while China and Taiwan also claim the islands. The Pentagon urged the PRC to stop sending Chinese government vessels into the Senkakus’ waters. A Pentagon spokesperson said that the actions of the Chinese vessels may “lead to miscalculation” and physical or material harm.

Shortly after winning the presidential election, Biden reportedly reassured Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga that the Senkakus fell under Article V of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation. Article V obligates U.S. support in an armed attack against “territories under the administration of Japan.” Defense Secretary Austin reaffirmed this position on Jan. 23. Both the Japanese prime minister and defense minister have said that China’s new coast guard law is unacceptable and likely to inflame tensions in the Senkakus. In response to the Chinese law, Japanese officials warned that Japanese law allows the Japan Coast Guard to fire on foreign vessels attempting to land on the Senkakus. According to the Japan Times, Beijing told Tokyo it is “exercising self-restraint” with its China Coast Guard vessels near the Senkakus, while insisting that it will continue operating to prevent Japanese vessels from entering the surrounding waters.

U.S. and Japanese naval forces have conducted a series of bilateral maritime exercises in recent weeks. The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group operated with three Japanese destroyers on Feb. 28—the second bilateral exercise of its deployment—while four U.S. and Japanese destroyers conducted advanced warfighting training with a Japanese helicopter destroyer on March 5. The U.S. Seventh Fleet said that recent training ranges from “maritime security operations to more complex anti-submarine and air defense exercises.”

In the South China Sea

On Feb. 17, the USS Russell (DDG 59) conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near the Spratly Islands (Malay: Kepulauan Spratly; Mandarin: Nánshā Qúndǎo; Tagalog: Kapuluan ng Kalayaan; Vietnamese: Quần đảo Trường Sa) in the South China Sea. It was the second FONOP in the South China Sea under the Biden administration. A U.S. Seventh Fleet press release said the transit challenged unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan. The statement noted that all three states insist on permission or advance notice before a foreign military vessel transits through their territorial seas, violating the right of no-notice innocent passage under UNCLOS.

The French Navy announced that its amphibious readiness group would transit the South China Sea twice in the coming weeks during its five-month deployment. The FS Tonnerre (L9014) is transiting from Toulon, France, to Sasebo, Japan, and will participate in a multilateral amphibious exercise with U.S. and Japanese naval forces. The Tonnerre’s commanding officer said that the deployment served to reinforce partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, citing all four Quad nations.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began a month-long military exercise in the South China Sea on March 1. While announcing the start of the exercise, a Chinese Defense Ministry statement said that China “will not lose an inch of our land left to us by our ancestors …. We oppose any nations creating tensions and stepping up military presence under the name of freedom of navigation.” The exercise aims to improve joint operations among China’s military branches to meet “real combat” training requirements. The PLA released footage on March 3 of joint landing drills around Triton Island (Mandarin: Zhōngjiàn Dǎo; Vietnamese: đảo Tri Tôn) in the Paracel Islands (Mandarin: Xīshā Qúndǎo; Vietnamese: Quần đảo Hoàng Sa).

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s military has begun a series of drills in the region. Taiwan’s Coast Guard held live-fire drills on the Taiwan-controlled (but PRC-claimed) Pratas Islands (Mandarin: Dōngshā Qúndǎo) in the northern portion of the South China Sea on March 1. As noted in recent editions of Water Wars, the Pratas Islands are in a precarious physical and political position amid growing tension among the PRC, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Taiwan announced it is holding another exercise on March 23 on Taiwan-controlled Itu Aba (Mandarin: Tàipíng Dǎo; Tagalog: Pulo ng Ligaw; Vietnamese: Đảo Ba Bình). The Philippines, China and Vietnam also claim Itu Aba—the largest island in the Spratlys. In addition, Taiwan is conducting at least six missile tests in March for its Hsiung Feng IIE surface-to-surface cruise missiles, as well as its Thunderbolt-2000 tactical rocket launcher.

The USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) and USS John Finn (DDG 113) transited the Taiwan Strait on Feb. 24 and March 10, respectively. These operations were the second and third Taiwan Strait transits of the Biden administration. Videos of the John Finn’s transit depict the destroyer launching an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter. With the Taiwan Strait stretching between 70 to 95 nautical miles, the strait consists of high seas beyond the 12-nautical mile territorial seas of the PRC or Taiwan; these seas allow for unrestricted navigation and overflight under UNCLOS. The PLA denounced John Finn’s transit as a “deliberate showing off” and a “provocation” that undermined cross-strait stability. In 2020, the U.S. Navy conducted a record 13 Taiwan Strait transits.


Writing in Foreign Policy, former defense secretary Gen. James Mattis, scholar Michael Auslin and former defense official Joseph Felter praise the Biden administration’s recent Quad summit and call for maritime security to be a primary focus area. They write, “Given the naval strength of the Quad nations, they should take the lead in enhancing regional maritime security cooperation ... and [conduct] regular, joint maritime patrols that maintain freedom of navigation in international waters and deny Beijing the ability to intimidate and coerce smaller nations.” According to the authors, other areas of focus for the Quad should include supply chain security, technology cooperation and enhancing diplomatic reach where individual Quad nations have traditionally held less influence.

Zachary Haver at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute analyzes how China uses Sansha City in the Paracel Islands to exercise administrative control over the South China Sea. Headquartered on Woody Island in the Paracels, Sansha’s jurisdiction covers the Paracel, Spratly and Zhongsha Islands (which includes Scarborough Shoal). Sansha City “uses civilian-administrative means, including maritime law enforcement and maritime militia operations, rather than military force to advance China’s position in the South China Sea disputes.” Haver finds that this administrative system “ultimately allows China to govern contested areas of the South China Sea as if they were Chinese territory.”

Brad Lendon chronicles on CNN the rapid expansion of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) and its ambitions to project power far from Chinese shores. Lendon notes that China’s naval fleet of 360 warships far surpasses the U.S. Navy’s 297 ships. Moreover, China’s commercial shipbuilding capacity is unmatched: China built more merchant ships in 2019 than the United States did during the entire period of emergency wartime shipbuilding from 1941 to 1945. Lendon notes, however, that the PLAN’s maritime dominance lies in the near seas around China and the PLAN remains years or decades away from being able to conduct sustained combat operations far from Chinese shores. China’s fourth aircraft carrier is likely to be nuclear powered, according to a report in the South China Morning Post, which will enhance China’s power projection capabilities. The PLAN currently operates two aircraft carriers, and a third is under construction; all use conventional steam turbines. In 2019, Chinese military sources said the PLAN intends to operate at least six aircraft carriers by 2035.

Sean Quirk is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School. He holds a BA in Political Science from Columbia University and served as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy for five years. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other agency of the United States Government.

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