The Quad’s MDA program may further militarize the Indo-Pacific region, where the US aircraft carrier USS Nimitz can be seen here in a file photo leading a formation.
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The Quad countries jointly want to track the movements of ships and submarines in the Indo-Pacific using satellites, a move analysts warn could potentially lead to militarization of the region.
“While the Quad is not currently a security organization, it has the potential to become one soon,” retired Indian Army Major General Dhruv Katoch told CNBC. “If China’s militancy threatens ASEAN countries, then perhaps Southeast Asian countries would also be inclined to join such a group.”
The military nature of the initiative is also underlined by the fact that the program is led by the respective navies of the four participating countries: the US, Australia, Japan and India.
Already a scene of intensifying geopolitical struggles for influence between the US and China, the Indo-Pacific region has seen “freedom of navigation” patrols by US, Australian, German, French and British naval vessels in waters and maritime features marked by China are claimed.
With the new Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness program, announced at the Quad Leaders Summit in Tokyo in May, a new dimension will be added to the state of vigilance.
Indo-Pacific Maritime Security
The IPMDA will share commercially available satellite data and alert smaller Southeast Asian states if there are territorial violations or if ships engage in illegal activities such as illegal fishing, smuggling or piracy in waters within their maritime borders.
“This initiative will transform the ability of partners in the Pacific, Southeast Asia and Indian Ocean islands to fully monitor the waters off their coasts and in turn maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the statement said. statement from the White House. said.
China has maritime territorial disputes with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan. Chinese ships often stray into disputed waters in the East and South China Seas.
The data on ship movements will be shared with participants in four “information fusion centers” in India, Singapore, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific, according to the White House.
“The Quad’s decision to provide data from commercial satellites to countries in the Indo-Pacific will be of great value to the region. In the South China Sea, it will enhance cooperation between some ASEAN countries and the Quad,” said Katoch, who previously served on the Indo-Tibetan border.
Shining light on ‘dark shipping’
The White House said the IPMDA will monitor “dark shipping” — or ships that try to evade detection by disabling their transponders that transmit identification and location data. It will also identify other tactical-level activities such as: illegal transhipments of prohibited weapons or illegally caught fish.
The data will integrate three critical regions – the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean – in the Indo-Pacific.
The Quad could serve as a check on China’s naval expansion in the Indo-Pacific, Chaitanya Giri, a New Delhi-based information systems consultant with the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Autonomous Research and Information System for Developing Countries, told CNBC.
He said the new Quad initiative provides the ability to track submarines through submarine commercial cables in the region.
“The Chinese Navy is trying to expand its influence across the first, second, and third island chains. And to move east toward the coast of the United States and gain a greater presence in Guam and as far as Hawaii. The Quad will monitor that closely. keep an eye on it,” said Giri.
The three island chains are part of a geographic security concept used by military planners. They describe three consecutive lines of land masses extending from islands closest to China such as Taiwan, including the Philippines and Indonesia, and ending with Hawaii on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
Giri said the data would also help with law enforcement.
The wealth of near real-time data available under the program includes ship identification numbers or call signs, their locations, potential paths, their port of origin and final destinations, he said.
“These are the resources needed to track dark shipping,” Giri said, adding that information from ground sources can be combined with satellite data to even determine the cargo carried by such ships.
What it could mean for China?
China ranks high on indices tracking illegal fishing, according to IUU Fishing Index.
“It is quite well known that ships engaged in illegal shipping are of Chinese origin. The satellite data will confirm this and improve the accuracy and capabilities many times over,” said Katoch, the retired general.
In response to CNBC’s request for comment, China’s foreign ministry said the allegation had no “factual basis”.
“China has always played an active, constructive role for peace in the region for [it] to flourish,” the ministry said in a statement. “We do not know where the described so-called ‘illegal shipment’ comes from. We also do not accept criticism without factual basis.”
Katoch said the Quad initiative would be welcomed in the Indo-Pacific region. “From a purely commercial perspective, this is [maritime domain] information is something smaller countries desperately want,” he said, adding that the initiative can also identify and combat piracy and terrorism threats.
Another analyst said the Quad’s objectives were broader in scope.
“The real purpose of the maritime domain initiative is strategic,” said Pavan Choudary, president of Blue Circle, a geopolitical think tank based in New Delhi. “This has the purported purpose of checking ‘illegal fishing’, but it really is a means for Quad to move forward [their] security initiatives,” he told CNBC.
Not everyone agrees that militarization will be the ultimate outcome.
“This initiative is not so much military, but law enforcement in nature,” said Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It will help small island nations and coastal developing countries in the Indian and Pacific Oceans to monitor and enforce laws in their own waters. By helping to deliver such public goods, the Quad does a lot more to compete with China than it does when it explicitly anti-Chinese measures,” he told CNBC.
“The fact that most of the illegal fishing and militia operations are carried out by China will make the results of this initiative deeply embarrassing for Beijing, but unless it starts to better regulate its own fishing and militia fleets, there really isn’t a countermeasure it can take. can take.” Poling added.
In a recent report, China’s state-backed publication Global Times said that while the initiative did not name the country, it was clearly aimed at China. “The mechanism has made China’s heart by hyped the country’s ‘threat’, and no matter how it sugarcoated its goal to contain China, few regional countries will be fooled,” noted up the newspaper.