It was the 2004 Tsunami when India, Australia, Japan and the US came together to form a “core group” disaster response team. Many consider this the antecedent of Quad. The success of these countries in harnessing their resources to work for the common good prompted them to work on other transnational issues.
The next two years witnessed statements such as “concert of democracies” (2006 Princeton Project Report) to “values oriented diplomacy” (Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe). In 2007, the idea of a minilateral structure involving India, Japan, Australia and the US—the four countries sharing democratic values germinated with an exploratory meet to look at “issues of common interest“. However, that was the beginning and the end of Quad 1.0. Beijing’s thorny reaction did not allow it to take off. What it did, however, was raise awareness of the need for collaboration among countries willing and able to address convergent regional issues, like disaster relief or sea lane security.
Ten years later Quad 2.0 resurfaced in 2017 but has since been mired in confusions regarding structure, intentions and goals of the quad. It is worth exploring whether humanitarian assistance and disaster response be the foundation to revive the Quad.
Indo-Pacific is the world’s most disaster prone region accounting for more than half of the global disaster victims. This makes disaster management a regional priority. Last few years have witnessed a flurry of activities in this regard with growing prominence of bilateral response arrangements, South-South cooperation and increased capacity of regional organisation.
India being one of the five countries most exposed to regional disasters, has been forced to develop capabilities to deal with such challenges. While most of the activities are focused on to deal with events at home, a rising India has increasingly been participating in international disaster relief as part of bolstering its smart power image. The 2015 Nepal earthquake and India’s prompt response has been a recent example. India has also helped Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Maldives in dealing with natural disasters as well as rescued its own nationals from disaster struck/ conflict regions such as Yemen, Kuwait, Iraq etc. The Indian Navy recognises humanitarian assistance as a key maritime strategy. It has thus bolstered its disaster assistance capacity by acquiring a Landing Platform Dock (commissioned INS Jalashwa) from the US, by investing in large Landing ship tanks. Indian Airforce also has C17 Globemaster, C130 Super Hercules, Chinooks in its inventory strengthening disaster relief potential.
The other three members have provided a vast amount of assistance worldwide, including financial aid, emergency supplies and personnel. Australia’s response to the disappearance of a Malaysian aircraft, MH370, in 2014 bolstered its HADR standing in the region. American involvement in the disaster assistance in the Indo-Pacific stems from the presence of American troops/ nationals and trade interests in the region. The US, Japan and Australia have been running joint activities in humanitarian assistance, knowledge sharing and disaster relief. Japan and India also have ‘Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation’ in place to advance security cooperation, including HADR issues. Washington and New Delhi’s military cooperation on HADR was first mentioned in the 2005. They also launched the U.S.-India Disaster Relief Initiative in 2005 to work together to build capability to improve their response to future disasters and have also incorporated disaster scenarios into their existing military exercises. India and Australia have also been conducting bilateral naval exercise AUSINDEX, and collaborated multilaterally in the Indian Ocean Rim Association, as well as MILAN, all having elements of HADR.
These bilateral or regional efforts can be shifted into the ‘minilateral’ Quad. This will also allow joint capacity building, information sharing, interoperability in less provocative settings than conventional military exercises. Quad’s HADR can also be used to build ties with armed forces of member countries as well as other nations in the region. After all disaster response employs the same platforms and capabilities that can project hard power. Same ships that carry relief food supplies, tents and clothes and relief workers can ferry troops and tanks during wartimes. Same aircrafts looking for missing aircrafts can look for enemy submarines and take on enemy aircrafts. Quad focusing on HADR will help member countries, especially India to gain more expeditionary experience far from home waters and project soft power in the wider Indo-Pacific. This is particularly relevant to counter Chinese investment and economic presence in the region. This does not come without challenges. Quad members might face difficulty in coordinating responses. This becomes more pertinent as every member differs in the capability, expertise of technical know-how, information gathering as well as in contributing funds. Administrative procedures and bureaucratic delays can further hinder cooperation.
However, if the Quad is serious about working for the common good in the Indo-Pacific, then the focus cannot be limited to creating a security architecture with an eye on containing China. Investing in HADR is bound to give it a soft appeal of working for the collective good creating an impact in the area of climate change, piracy, terrorism and disasters.
*** The author is currently an independent analyst of geopolitical issues, was earlier associated with Bangalore-based NIAS, and was also a Fulbright Adjunct Faculty at American University, Washington DC ***