The Quad, maritime security, and climate change

The Quad needs to revamp itself as a broader platform by including climate breakdown as a security issue.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) was re-initiated in 2017 after almost a decade-long hiatus.

Members of the informal minilateral (Australia, Japan, India, and the US) found a shared sense of wariness against China’s perceived rise, the deepening of the Belt and Road Initiative and Maritime Silk Route, and Beijing’s actions in the East and South China Seas, as well as along the Indian border. 

The Quad never explicitly verbalises the centricity of China, behind its objectives of securing a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ and inclusive, ‘rules-based order’ in the region, but security experts and practitioners confirm as much. 

This anti-China posturing has harmed the Quad’s acceptability and relevance among several stakeholder states in the region. The Quad has an opportunity (and a need) to revamp itself as a bigger, more durable platform by engaging with diverse concerns of the region, including non-traditional ones, particularly climate change.

The Indo-Pacific, which came to replace the geopolitical limits of Asia-Pacific as conceived in the late Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s much acclaimed ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’ speech in the Indian Parliament in 2007, covers a major chunk of the global maritime area from the east coast of Africa to the US west coast. 

It brings within its realm many countries from the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, key sea routes, several maritime choke points such as the Malacca Strait, South and East China seas, and sites of strategic contention in the latter two. The sheer size of the imagined strategic region opens up concerns for the Quad to engage in other than the China factor alone. 

One such challenge is to re-evaluate maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region in the context of climate change and find ways to cooperate and engage with vulnerable nations and among themselves.

The rise in sea surface temperature and sea level will have devastating impacts on the natural weather systems. Countries and islands within and along the Indo-Pacific rim will experience frequent and intense weather-related extremities such as typhoons and cyclones. 

Floods, saltwater intrusions, and land inundation will cause unprecedented hardships to human wellbeing and survivability as these directly impinge upon food, health, and economic security, and by extension, political stability. 

Maritime criminality and conflicts are expected to rise with the decline in fish stocks and other marine resources. As traditional fisherfolks and marine ecology-dependent communities lose their livelihood, there is a strong likelihood that they will turn to criminal activities such as piracy and trafficking as witnessed in the Horn of Africa region. 

Additionally, rising sea levels will impact existing sea boundaries, as features on which boundary delimitations are based may be inundated or washed away. This is sure to further complicate existing maritime disputes among states such as the South China Sea and the East China Sea. 

Climate change impact on the seas will also trigger mass migration as inhabitants of low-lying lands and littorals will have to move in search of safer habitats. This is bound to result in law-and-order issues in (reluctant) host countries in the least and could result in intense conflict over dwindling resources.

Over the last years, the Quad has increasingly come to pay attention to issues which are of relevance in the context of an expanded conceptualisation of security. 

In 2022, the group operationalized the Quad Partnership on Humanitarian and Disaster Relief in the Indo-Pacific to enhance capacity, capability, and coordination in disaster relief operations. 

The Quad’s joint statement issued after the leaders’ summit in May 2023 in Hiroshima further underlines their intent to act on ‘the Indo-Pacific’s key challenges of health security, rapidly changing technology, the grave threat of climate change, and the strategic challenges facing the region’.

The group formulated the Quad Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Package in 2022 to advance practical cooperation to address climate change and to provide ‘support for Indo-Pacific partners for pragmatic transition to a net-zero economy and society and enhancing resilience’. 

It contains measures to address both mitigation and adaptation/ resilience needs for the region. Experts this author spoke to laud the initiative as a concrete step in the direction of the Quad shedding its China-centeredness while also addressing an existential crisis the region faces.

Elevating climate change on the agenda of the Quad is vital, given the importance  of the crisis and the vulnerability of the region it seeks to protect. For the Quad to successfully secure a free and open Indo-Pacific, it needs to synergise efforts with other existing regional groupings such as ASEAN, and of course, garner the support and acceptance of other partner countries. 

Key states such as South Korea, Philippines, and Vietnam which are economically deeply intertwined with China despite hard security differences are naturally reluctant to support a Quad bulwarked solely against Beijing. Quad members Japan and India themselves have shown discomfort about the grouping being pitted directly against their neighbour.

China remains ASEAN’s largest trading partner and the Pacific Small Island Developing States. Their gravest security threat stems from climate change related disasters, inundation, and associated resource conflicts. 

The Quad needs to heed to their assistance requirements to help bolster resilience and adaptability to climate change, in exchange for which they might be more willing to lend allegiance and support to the Quad’s larger strategic goals.

Impacts of climate change on the sea can derail the peaceful and safe operationality of the region’s sea routes, maritime chokepoints and maritime security in general. the very space for power projections by states. Further, for the Quad to have a realistic chance to achieve its goals, it must find acceptability and resonance from other partners in the region. 

Robert Mizo is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delhi and holds a PhD in Climate Policy studies. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, Tokyo.

This article was issued by the Toda Peace Institute and is being republished from the original with their permission.

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