Quad Cooperation on Disaster Management: Prospects for Revitalizing the Partnership
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt

Quad Cooperation on Disaster Management
Prospects for Revitalizing the Partnership

Interview with Sohini Bose
July 2, 2022

At its meeting in May, the Quad highlighted several previous focal points of policies and explored new initiatives, including frameworks of disaster management. This raises questions about whether the political will exists for such intergovernmental cooperation. Arsalan Ahmed spoke with Sohini Bose, a junior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Kolkata and a nonresident fellow at NBR, about her work on natural disaster management. She discusses how multilateral cooperation through the Quad to mitigate the threat from natural disasters can be helpful for member countries as well as the broader Indo-Pacific.

How did the Quad form out of the joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami?

The Quad traces its origin to the ad hoc Tsunami Core Group, comprising India, the United States, Australia, and Japan, which was created to deliver a coordinated response after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, one of the deadliest disasters in modern history. Unfortunately after its formation, the Quad’s overtly conventional strategic-security image made it difficult for the grouping to function sustainably in the face of Chinese discontent. As a result, the Quad has begun exploring other areas of collaboration for its survival.

The entire Indian Ocean region is referred to as the “world hazard belt” due to frequent cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, and droughts. Meanwhile, the Ring of Fire covers much of the rim of the Pacific Ocean, making the region prone to multiple volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Consequently, natural disaster management seems to be a prime area of cooperation for these like-minded Indo-Pacific countries.

In the four phases of disaster management (mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery), how can the Quad best serve as an avenue of regional cooperation?

Disaster management is operational at four stages, two of which are particularly relevant for the Quad. These are disaster preparedness and disaster response.

With respect to disaster preparedness, all the Quad countries have developed sophisticated systems of dealing with disasters, each excelling in different ways. For example, Japan has an efficient earthquake early-warning system, while India has a tsunami-alert system for the Indian Ocean and Australia has the same for the Pacific Ocean. The United States has also developed tools for mapping disaster vulnerability. From this, there is ample space for information sharing, technical knowledge, and best practices that are worth learning, and bad practices that must be avoided.

The Quad can thus engage in developing and coordinating better early-warning systems and capacity-building initiatives by hosting workshops and training programs. This would not only enhance the prowess of its member states but also benefit those countries that might seek to partner with the Quad. As the fact sheet released by the White House in the buildup to the Quad Leaders’ Summit in Tokyo in May 2022 claimed, Quad partners will convene technical experts to enhance cooperation for additional disaster mitigation and HADR workshops. They will also work together to improve crisis preparedness and early warning. In the same manner, the Quad can host joint disaster management exercises, which would train the participating countries in delivering better disaster responses.

With regard to disaster response, each of the member countries is an internationally recognized provider of HADR. Hence, the Quad can engage in search and rescue or relief operations in the event of a disaster. Some hiccups, however, could hinder such initiatives—for example, the disparity in HADR funding between countries. Australia’s reliance on civilian forces and bilateral engagements for providing disaster relief might also make it difficult to involve a military-oriented approach to disaster response.

Nonetheless, this avenue is worth exploring and may prove effective in the event of another disaster as calamitous as the 2004 tsunami. The Quad emphasized building links between response agencies of member states to provide timely and effective HADR support to the region in its Joint Statement on Quad Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, released in February 2022. At the recently concluded May summit, leaders established the Quad Partnership on HADR in the Indo-Pacific to strengthen their collaboration and effectively respond to disasters in the region.

Regarding disaster mitigation, the engagement of the Quad will be limited. This is because this phase of disaster management involves undertaking long-term policies that eliminate or reduce the impact of hazards. As such, initiatives often involve activities like population movement or infrastructure building and fall largely within national jurisdiction. Similarly, for disaster recovery, which includes population relocation and rehabilitation, national jurisdiction is at work. Therefore, in these stages, the Quad can only be involved in a limited manner (unless requested otherwise), such as offering funding and the use of mechanisms like the U.S. disaster recovery toolkit, which helps local governments measure the progress of their recovery efforts.

Do disaster management agencies in Quad member states communicate and share information to improve each other’s disaster preparedness, and how effective has this been in reducing damage?

Since 2004, when the current Quad members had first come together as the Tsunami Core Group, they have collaborated on a bilateral or a trilateral basis in disaster management. For example, India and the United States signed a bilateral disaster relief initiative in July 2005 to better integrate their disaster response capabilities. India and Japan signed a memorandum of cooperation in disaster management to engage in disaster risk reduction. With Australia, India collaborates on the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, where reducing disaster risk is a major purview. The United States and Japan cooperate in the emergency response, and their foreign development agencies (the U.S. Agency for International Development and Japan International Cooperation Agency) have worked together on recovery projects. The United States and Australia have a memorandum of understanding to strengthen emergency management cooperation in response to disasters. Australia and Japan engage in joint exercises and disaster relief operations through their Reciprocal Access Agreement. Furthermore, the United States, Japan, and Australia conduct disaster relief operations through the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue. These countries also participate in India’s Malabar naval exercises, where HADR is the main component.

Indeed, communication is cardinal in all these collaborations, as information sharing is a key aspect of exchanges in disaster management. Nonetheless, as individual entities, each country has its own disaster management mechanism, and hence there are bound to be discrepancies in structure, funding, and even assistance programs. While the existing cooperative mechanisms may facilitate the Quad’s engagement in disaster management, these differences would also have to be accommodated. Success can only be gauged in terms of the ability of the Quad to effectively provide coordinated responses in the event of disasters and enhance preparedness in its member countries. So far, apart from its recent initiative of supporting Tonga’s emergency and recovery activities following the volcano eruption and tsunami in January 2022, the only instance of the Quad countries offering coordinated HADR was as the Tsunami Core Group in 2004, which was a humanitarian as well as diplomatic success.

Is there a role for the Quad to work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to develop a HADR framework that strengthens Indo-Pacific stability and security?

It is important to remember that apart from being a very critical public service, disaster management is also an avenue of diplomatic collaboration. The mitigation of nontraditional security threats that in general are transnational, such as natural disasters, marine debris, or even illegal fishing, requires collective action among the affected states. In the process these efforts become avenues of confidence building by cultivating mutual trust and goodwill among the countries. Therefore, disaster diplomacy is an instrument that is often utilized by countries to strengthen their relations with other like-minded nations that share the same concern. In the Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement released in March 2021, HADR was identified as an area demanding the Quad’s response. This was further endorsed in the joint statement in February 2022. In both statements, the Quad also committed itself to working with a range of partners and expressed its strong support for ASEAN centrality, unity, and the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.” The Quad countries share similar interests in maintaining a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region at the heart of which lies ASEAN. In their efforts to engineer a global response to the Covid-19 pandemic through the Quad Plus, they had also partnered with Vietnam, an ASEAN member.

However, while ASEAN has welcomed the initiatives of the Quad countries to move beyond the domain of traditional security, it may also choose to distance itself from the Quad as perceptions about the grouping vary from country to country within ASEAN. Moreover, many members may not be too keen to engage with the Quad if they associate it with the United States’ “free and open Indo Pacific” strategy, often perceived to be in competition with China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Nonetheless, a targeted focus on disaster management could bring the Quad closer to ASEAN, given the vulnerability of Southeast Asia to natural disasters. Furthermore, being a humanitarian concern, this focus would be less prone to earning political displeasure from countries who may otherwise have been opposed to a conventional security partnership. Individually, Quad countries already partner with ASEAN’s disaster management initiatives and are participants in the ASEAN Regional Forum Disaster Relief Exercise. They have also collaborated with ASEAN members in providing HADR in real crises. Quad-ASEAN collaboration in disaster management, therefore, stands to benefit the Indo-Pacific as a pathway for deepening integration and promoting goodwill.

At times, there have been disagreements about what constitutes a disaster that requires foreign aid. How can the Quad create a framework to begin formal proceedings of assisting one another in carrying out plans for disaster management?

As decreed by the Oslo Guidelines of 2007, HADR must be requested by the affected country and cannot be imposed by the donor state under any condition. This lies completely at the discretion of each country, depending on what incident they qualify as a disaster, how they choose to address it, and whether they seek foreign assistance. As the White House fact sheet released before the May Quad summit puts it, “the partners may provide joint or coordinated assistance as requested by an affected state in the crisis-alert, crisis-response, or post-crisis review phases of a disaster,” through the Quad Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Mechanism.

The “sensitivity to sovereignty” paradigm that prevails in South Asia and the Asia-Pacific region complicates the acceptance of relief aid. Given their colonial history, countries in this part of the world are careful to ensure that any pretext of an external power providing relief assistance in their territory does not turn into an opportunity for intervention in domestic matters. Interestingly, it is also in this part of the world that armed forces are dispatched to provide HADR (as they are trained to respond quickly to an emergency situation), although disaster relief is essentially a civilian task. The “Asia-Pacific Regional Guidelines for the Use of Foreign Military Assets in Natural Disaster Response Operations” deal with military HADR engagement in the affected country.

Therefore, although Quad partners announced that they will coordinate and mobilize civilian-led efforts in disaster assistance, the statement adds that support will be taken from civil defense and military assets when needed. Any framework that Quad partners design for formally assisting one another in disaster management must adhere to these guidelines. If then the Quad is able to generate goodwill in the region through such efforts, this will help sustain the grouping. However, the affected country’s perceptions of the member states will also affect the Quad’s acceptability as a donor of HADR. This will vary from one country to another and be dynamic in nature.

After the Quad meeting in May, how should members approach disaster management?

Given the high risk of natural disasters in the Indo-Pacific, disaster management is a transnational humanitarian concern that demands Quad collaboration. Proper implementation of the announced Quad Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Mechanism has the potential to not only benefit the region but also help create a steady foundation for the Quad and thereby ensure its continued functionality.

The first step toward engaging in disaster management would be to create a standard framework determining the rules, conditions, and manner of such engagement. The next step must address the question of funding and lay out the decision-making structure for the Quad’s initiatives in this purview. In all these steps, however, the Quad must make a clear distinction between its engagement in natural and man-made disasters. Engagement in the latter often raises issues of conventional security, on which it may be difficult for the Quad to take a stance. In the domain of natural disasters, the Quad has a more sanguine opportunity to revitalize itself and establish its relevance on the regional and international stage.

Sohini Bose is a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Kolkata and a Nonresident Fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research.

This interview was conducted by Arsalan Ahmed, an intern with the Energy and Environment Affairs group at NBR.