The United States, Japan, Australia and India have launched a satellite-based initiative to help countries in the Indo-Pacific region track down illegal fishing and unconventional maritime militias in their recent efforts to counter China.
President Joe Biden and the other leaders of the Quad Security Group unveiled the scheme in Tokyo at their fourth summit in just over a year.
The quad, which was revived in 2017 after a nine-year hiatus, is the latest U.S. effort to deepen engagement in the region. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also revealed divisions within the group, which India has refused to condemn Moscow for the war.
“It is natural that there are differences of opinion,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at a news conference on Tuesday after the meeting. “But the four countries, including India, have reached a common understanding that a unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force in any region is not acceptable.”
The summit was held a day after Biden said he would use force to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, in comments that seemed to overthrow a decades-old American policy with “strategic ambiguity” that does not make it clear whether Washington would come to the defense of the autonomous island.
The White House rolled back Biden’s remark, saying U.S. policy had not changed. But this was the third time Biden has made similar confusing comments Taiwan.
The Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness initiative, which was first reported by the Financial Times, is designed to help countries in the region increase maritime capabilities to tackle human and arms trafficking, illegal fishing and Chinese maritime militias. The militias are reportedly engaged in commercial fishing, but instead allow Chinese coastguard and naval activity.
“This meets a real need … from almost the entire region, be it from Southeast Asia, be it in the Pacific, be it in South Asia, which is for much better knowledge of the maritime domain,” said a senior US official official.
“The ability to know what’s going on in countries’ territorial waters and in their exclusive economic zones.”
Another senior U.S. official said Quad would provide funds to work with a commercial satellite-based tracking service that would offer near-real-time maritime intelligence to countries.
It would monitor radio frequencies and radar signals that would allow countries to track vessels that have turned off AIS (Automatic Identification Systems) transponders to avoid detection.
The official said the benefit of using a commercial service was that it removed concerns about sharing classified information and would promote the development of a multilateral information sharing system.
She added that the service was a relatively inexpensive and efficient solution. The information would be shared through a network of regional centers – in India, Singapore, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands – and directly to countries in some cases.
In addition to the maritime initiative, the Quad partners agreed to strengthen cooperation in cyber security, vaccines, climate and infrastructure.
“In a short time, we have shown that the Quad is not just a passing fad. We mean business,” Biden said.
Prior to the summit, some Japanese officials had downplayed expectations of significant policy initiatives, saying it was more of a forum for dialogue with India.
“China may be worried that the Quad may evolve into an Asian version of NATO, but that’s far from the reality,” said Ken Jimbo, an international security expert at Keio University. “Having a framework for leaders to come together and discuss is the symbolic meaning of Quads.”