Defense cooperation 2.0: The challenge of trilateral and quadrilateral defense arrangements in the Indo-Asia-Pacific

Burgess_BeilsteinDespite heightened tensions in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region–and increased calls for trilateral and quadrilateral defense arrangements–the United States and its allies find it difficult to establish multilateral defense cooperation. In their CSP journal article, Stephen Burgess and Janet Beilstein analyze recent developments.

There is a growing call for multilateral defense cooperation in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, given China’s territorial expansionism and increasing influence and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear missile program. A power transition is taking place in the IAP that is causing the United States and its allies and partners to cooperate more closely to balance against a rising China.

China is more of a military and economic power now than ever before, including in the maritime domain. Also, the DPRK can threaten the Republic of Korea (ROK), Japan, and the United States with nuclear weapons. These trends mean that the United States is no longer confident that it can dissuade and deter rivals by itself or with the help of only one less powerful ally, such as Japan. Instead, the United States is looking to develop trilateral and quadrilateral arrangements that can be force multipliers and reinforce the regional status quo.

While the DPRK presently only threatens the ROK, Japan, and the United States, the deepening trilateral defense cooperation may serve as a template for a broader balancing coalition against China. In November 2016, Japan and the ROK signed a General Sharing of Military Intelligence Agreement (GSOMIA), which will make information-sharing on DPRK missile launches and missile defense cooperation easier.

In addition, the GSOMIA could enhance trilateral intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) with the deployment of the fifth generation F-35 fighter, which has advanced networking capabilities. The ROK could also integrate its ISR platforms with the U.S. P-8, Japan’s P-1 and reconnaissance satellites, providing for more effective anti-submarine warfare in the ROK’s economic exclusion zone. Established procedures for information-sharing and interoperable network systems are being developed so that coalition partners will have a common operating picture.

In the future, the agreement to allow the United States to deploy its Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) and AN/TPY-2 radar system could enable the ROK’s missile defense system to be linked into those of the United States and Japan and provide early warning of missile launches in the region.

Trilateral defense cooperation involving Australia, the United States, and Japan, on the other hand, revolves around a combination of the development of interoperable air and maritime capabilities and concern about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. In 2010, Japan and Australia signed an Acquisition and Cross-Sharing Agreement and, in 2012, a GSOMIA, which paved the way for greater trilateral cooperation in the sharing of logistics and information.

Submarine and anti-submarine warfare are areas of increasing cooperation, given China’s growing submarine fleet and forays into the Western and South Pacific and Japan and Australia’s acquisition of new submarines and P-8 surveillance aircraft. The three countries have plans for the joint development of amphibious capabilities. The three countries have stepped up joint exercises in the Western Pacific, including the Cope North exercises around Guam starting in 2014, which have involved the U.S. Air Force (USAF), the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The RAAF also hosts the biennial Exercise Pitch Black, in which many regional air forces participate.

The acquisition of the F-35 by Australia, Japan, and the United States provides the opportunity to take a leap forward in trilateral interoperability and air superiority. Repair and maintenance of the F-35 will take place in Australia and Japan. Increasing cooperation among the three air forces is especially important, given increasing challenges by the PLAAF over the ECS and SCS. Trilateral air force cooperation over the SCS and ECS would be helped by the development over a joint base in Guam.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has focused on building India’s strength to balance against the growing challenge from China and moved toward greater multilateral defense cooperation with the United States, Australia, and Japan. India has revived the Malabar multilateral naval exercises in the eastern Indian Ocean, and India, Japan and the United States have held joint naval exercises in the South China Sea.

China’s offensive assertiveness on its border with India–most recently in the PLA’s confrontation against Indian forces on the Doklam Plateau between Bhutan and Sikkim– provides a rationale for quadrilateral defense cooperation and raises the need to access advanced defense technology and expertise.

In particular, the intensifying bilateral security relationship between Japan under Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Modi and India is laying the foundation for a robust quadrilateral defense cooperation framework. They committed to align Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” with India’s “Act East Policy” through enhanced maritime security cooperation, improved connectivity in the wider Indo-Pacific region, strengthening cooperation with ASEAN, and promoting discussions between strategists and experts of the two countries. They pledged cooperation in defense equipment and technology in areas such as surveillance and unmanned system technologies and in defense production.

It is clear that regional powers are building their military capabilities and coalescing in reaction to the rise of China and the DPRK threat. Multilateral defense cooperation may slow China’s offensive assertiveness and show resolve in the face of DPRK provocations. However, until China and the DPRK engage in major escalation, the effectiveness of cooperation will continue to be limited due to divergent national interests. If and when escalation occurs, coalitions will be prepared to respond; the question is how united they will be and how much force they will use.

Stephen F. Burgess is Professor of International Security Studies, U.S. Air War College. Janet Beilstein is International Education Program Specialist at International Officer School, Air University. They are the authors of “Multilateral defense cooperation in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region: Tentative steps toward a regional NATO?”, Contemporary Security Policy, Advance online publication. It is available here.