Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: A Quiet Quad

Sam Cohen
Tuesday, October 13, 2020, 10:50 AM

The second ministerial meeting of “the Quad” produced few tangible results; military tensions with Taiwan continued to escalate; and the South China Sea was busy with warships from the United States, China and Japan.

A fire controlman 2nd class aboard the U.S.S. John McCain in the South China Sea (Markus Castaneda,

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The Quad: Symbolism Over Substance

On Oct. 6, the foreign ministers of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“the Quad”)—the informal strategic consultation group between the United States, Australia, India and Japan—met in Tokyo for their second-ever ministerial meeting. Observers noted that there was some “symbolism of just showing up,” as representatives of “four of the most powerful democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific region.” But analysts cautioned that the meeting produced “few concrete takeaways.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took an explicitly aggressive stance toward China during the meetings, imploring the Quad to “collaborate to protect our people and partners from the [Chinese Communist Party’s] exploitation, corruption and coercion.” Pompeo specifically called out China’s actions in the “South and East China Seas, the Mekong, the Himalayas, [and] the Taiwan Strait.” In an interview, Pompeo also promoted a vision of the Quad as “a true security framework, a fabric that can counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us.” Although he was careful to describe “security” as broader than “just military,” the other members of the Quad are reluctant to transform these informal meetings into something that looks like a security-based partnership focused on China.

The other members of the Quad did not seem receptive to Pompeo and his rhetoric. The Quad failed to produce any joint statement after their meeting, and the group remains informal, having taken no steps to institutionalize itself. Japan’s government spokesman specifically pushed back on Pompeo’s comments on China, saying, “This Quad meeting is not being held with any particular country in mind.” Japan also dismissed Pompeo’s call for building a security framework, as Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said that “the government is not sure what [Pompeo] meant.” Most commentators viewed Pompeo’s plan, which China derides as an “Asian NATO,” as “stillborn.”

Similarly, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne made only oblique references to resolving disputes “according to international law,” and she made sure to emphasize the non-maritime aspects of the agenda, including “health cooperation … critical minerals and technologies, countering disinformation and humanitarian assistance.” Her post-meeting statement, like that of Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, included no explicit mention of China. Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar also emphasized the non-maritime security aspects of the Quad meeting in his opening statement and post-meeting read-out, and he too avoided any mention of China. Still, all the Quad meeting countries’ read-outs included some mention of the importance of a “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific,” except for Australia’s, which described the Quad’s goal as a “stable, resilient and inclusive Indo-Pacific.” Despite reports that India will invite Australia to join its trilateral Malabar naval exercise involving the United States, India, and Japan, no announcement was made at the Quad meeting. Malabar is India’s “flagship cooperative naval exercise,” so extending an invitation to Australia would be “a significant intensification of the [Indian-Asutralian] relationship,” as well as an opportunity for the Quad members to “expand their information and intelligence sharing, naval interoperability, and habits of cooperation.” That no announcement was made in Tokyo underscores how reluctant India, Japan and Australia are to make the Quad appear to be a security-focused partnership.

China has expressed concerns that the Quad is “an attempt to contain its development.” The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to this particular Quad meeting by calling it a “closed and exclusive clique that will not help enhance mutual trust and cooperation.” The Chinese embassy in Japan released its own statement echoing the theme that “multilateral cooperation should be open, tolerant and transparent ... and should not be targeted at third parties.” Meanwhile, the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times characterized the Quad meeting as “All US’ bark and no bite,” arguing that Australia’s, India’s and Japan’s rejection of the United States’ hardline approach is “evidence of the US’ relatively declining leadership.” Pompeo embarked on a tour of Europe after the Quad meeting, and Xinhua, the official Chinese state news agency, has continued to criticize Pompeo for his “relentless China-bashing rhetoric” during the European trip.

Tense National Days in the Taiwan Strait

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has sent “dozens of warplanes into [Taiwan’s] air defence identification zone [ADIZ] in the past month” as tensions between Taiwan and China continue to escalate. These incursions have included a significant number of warplanes crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait, an “unofficial airspace boundary between Taiwan and mainland China.” As of Oct. 7, 1,710 PLA aircraft and 1,029 PLA vessels have entered Taiwan’s ADIZ this year. This has prompted Taiwan to scramble jets “nearly 3,000 times in response.” Chinese state-run media emphasized that the PLA sent warplanes into Taiwan’s ADIZ for at least four “consecutive days … since the start of … the eight-day National Day [on Oct. 1] and Mid-Autumn holiday period on the Chinese mainland.” The expeditions, it says, “demonstrate the PLA’s capability and determination in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Tensions between mainland China and Taiwan have been running so high that former U.S. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. (ret.) James A. Winnefeld and former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell penned an essay outlining how a possible China-Taiwan war could break out in early 2021.

Taiwan has compared the PLA’s actions and the frequency with which China has crossed the median line to the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis. During her public address on Taiwan’s National Day on Oct. 10, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen responded to this increased PLA aggression. While insisting that her goal is “regional peace and stability,” Tsai argued that “showing weakness and making concessions will not bring peace.” She instead emphasized “[a]dequate preparation and reliance on the determination and strength of solid national defense capabilities” as “the only way to guarantee Taiwan’s security and maintain regional peace.” She also sought to paint China as a regional aggressor, highlighting the sovereignty disputes in the South and East China Seas, the China-India border conflict, and China’s new national security law targeting Hong Kong, though she was careful not to mention mainland China directly.

Just days before Tsai’s address, U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien on Oct. 7 commented on the Taiwan Strait tensions, reaffirming the U.S. posture of “strategic ambiguity” regarding whether it would intervene to protect Taiwan and also pressing Taiwan to increase its military budget and modernization efforts. O’Brien suggested that Taiwan needed to “turn [itself] into a porcupine” militarily because “[l]ions generally don’t like to eat porcupines.” O’Brien’s comments were echoed by Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia David Helvey, who called Taiwan’s plan to increase defense spending by $1.4 billion “a step in the right direction,” but “insufficient” to effectively defend the island from an increasing threat from mainland China. Chinese state-run media drew on O’Brien’s and Helvey’s comments to argue that the United States intends to abandon Taiwan: “[P]orcupines protect themselves against lions by their own thorns … [so] the US—another lion—would not take action to battle with the mainland lion if military conflicts break out across the Taiwan Straits.”

Haze Gray and Underway

The first weeks of October were a busy time in the South China Sea. On Oct. 9, the USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands (Mandarin: Xīshā Qúndǎo; Vietnamese: Quần đảo Hoàng Sa). In keeping with the U.S.’s July announcement rejecting China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the United States said the operation “demonstrated that these waters are beyond what China can lawfully claim as its territorial sea.” China, unsurprisingly, condemned the operation, calling it “provocative” and “dangerous,” and promised to “take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and security and to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.” The FONOP comes as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has outlined his vision for the Navy’s future fleet design, calling for a fleet of more than 355 ships by the mid-2030s and more than 500 ships by 2045 in order to match the growing capabilities of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy. Some experts have questioned the effectiveness of FONOPs, questioning whether FONOPs detract from the U.S. Navy’s ability to “to train up for high-end conflict” and meet its readiness goals—especially given that the frequent operations do not seem to dissuade China from militarizing the artificial islands in the South China Sea.

The United States was not the only country sending its warships to contested waters. During the first week of October, China held five simultaneous naval exercises along its coast. Two of these exercises were held near the Paracel Islands, one was held in the East China Sea and one was north in Bohai Sea. This was the second month in a row that China held concurrent naval exercises, which previously was a rare occurrence. Vietnam, a claimant of the Paracel Islands, was quick to object to the exercises, arguing that China’s activities would “complicate efforts to restart talks on a long-awaited” maritime code of conduct between China and ASEAN members. President Nguyen Phu Trong of Vietnam and Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke by phone, with both countries emphasizing the need to cooperate to solve “existing issues, especially maritime issues.”

Meanwhile, Japan announced on Oct. 9 “that it will establish three electronic defense units on islands facing the East China Sea by March 2022.” These three new units will add to Japan’s existing plans to create seven more electronic defense units, of which five will be in southwestern Japan closer to China. In addition to the electronic defense announcement, Japan deployed three warships—including helicopter carrier Kaga—to the South China Sea for an anti-submarine exercise on Oct. 9. After completing the exercise, the three ships will make a port call in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam.

In Other News

Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base

According to satellite imagery collected on Oct. 1, sometime in early September, Cambodia demolished a U.S.-funded facility at its Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand. The demolition of this building, the Tactical Headquarters of the National Committee for Maritime Security, follows reports earlier this summer that Cambodia and China had signed a secret agreement to give China exclusive access to Ream Naval Base in exchange for building new infrastructure at the base. Cambodia, however, “denied that its demolition of [the building] is a signal that China will be granted basing privileges there.” The developments at Ream come on the heels of last month’s U.S. Treasury Department announcement of sanctions against a Chinese company that had been given “control over a large part of the [Cambodian] coastline.” Analysts agree that if China were to gain basing rights in Cambodia, this would allow China to “project power, especially air power, over the Gulf of Thailand, Strait of Malacca, and Andaman Sea in a way it couldn't before.”


Although Secretary Pompeo’s attempts to persuade the Quad to take a more openly hostile stance against China seemed ineffective, there is some reason to believe that such efforts may be more fruitful in the future. According to the Pew Research Center, unfavorable views of China have reached “historic highs” in the United States (73 percent unfavorable), Australia (81 percent unfavorable) and Japan (86 percent unfavorable). While the Japanese views on China were similarly negative in 2019, these numbers represent a 24-percentage-point increase in Australians’ negative evaluations of China and a 13-percentage-point increase in Americans’ negative views. The Quad representatives may come under domestic public pressure to use the Quad as a means of countering China. Chinese commentators, however, argue that Pompeo’s rhetoric and efforts to institutionalize the Quad are in conflict with the desire of most countries in the region to refrain from taking sides between the United States and China. Still, other analysts suggest that China’s growing unfavorability, its handling of the coronavirus, and other nations’ behind-closed-doors discussions of Chinese security concerns indicate that there may be an appetite for a more China-focused approach in the future.

China played host to an Oct. 1 National Day that was far less militaristic than last year’s festivities. National Day 2019 marked 70 years in power for the Chinese Communist Party and was accompanied by an enormous military parade that highlighted its maritime weaponry. This year’s National Day, however, coincided with the Mid-Autumn Festival and was used instead to highlight China’s gradually recovering economy, which had been weakened by the coronavirus pandemic. Chinese state-run media emphasized an uptick in domestic tourism throughout China that it portrayed as showing “a robust recovery in China’s consumer market and indicat[ing] that the market has strong innovation potential and vitality.”

Finally, the PLA’s increased incursions across the Taiwan Strait median line—nearly 50 times this year—suggest that China “seeks to discard the de facto Taiwan Strait buffer zone.” This is based not just on informed analysis: PLA pilots intercepted by the Taiwan air force have “responded over the radio that ‘there is no median line.’” Such a development might have a number of overlapping purposes. First, rejecting the median line is an easy way to ratchet up pressure between mainland China and Taiwan—a “psychological attack on the island.” Second, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force could be using its flights as tactical tests of Taiwan’s capacity to respond. Lastly, the pattern of increasing incursions could be an attempt to normalize a new median line that is closer to Taiwan in order to “expand the area of activity by the air force and other services in the Taiwan Strait.” That would “follow the pattern of similar tactics used in the South China Sea over many years.

Sam Cohen is a J.D. student at Harvard Law School. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University and served as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other private or public entity.

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