The summit of Quad leaders from Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, held on the second day of the G-7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, was somewhat eclipsed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s surprise visit. In the shadow of the three-day G-7 summit, the Quad discussions were a mere formality, lasting less than an hour.
A longer, dedicated Quad summit had originally been scheduled for May 24 in Sydney, Australia. However, that event was canceled after U.S. President Joe Biden pulled out due to the ongoing debt ceiling negotiations in Washington.
Biden’s withdrawal raised concerns about potential damage to the United States’ perceived commitment to the region. The cancellation of the full Quad summit also risks weakening the impact of the results of the leaders’ meeting, at a time when the Quad has been receiving attention as a means of deterring China’s expanding influence in the Indo-Pacific.
The United States has called for space cooperation, in which Quad members would share information obtained by satellites for the purpose of earth observation and disaster mitigation. Space cooperation would also allow the Quad members to keep abreast of China’s movements in the Indo-Pacific region.
Emphasis on the development of superior space capabilities has only increased in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which highlighted how decisive such capabilities can prove in an international conflict. Satellite technology has been instrumental in guiding Ukraine’s drone strikes on Russian tanks and positions. In February 2022, the Ukrainian military was able to prevent the fall of Kyiv with a precise attack based on imagery data obtained from commercial Starlink satellites.
According to an executive at a private satellite company based in Washington, D.C., “The war in Ukraine has made the world realize that satellite imagery data holds the key to future war efforts.”
Past Trends in Quad Space Cooperation
In May 2022, three months into the war and amid escalating conflict, a Quad Summit was held in Tokyo. According to a senior government official who attended the summit, from the first day of discussions, the United States strongly pushed for the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) – which stipulates the sharing and disclosure of satellite imagery data to assess the state of the ocean — be the centerpiece of the joint statement. The move clearly reflected the priority Washington places on deterring China’s maritime activities in the region.
The talks, however, ran into difficulties due to objections that the disclosure of such information would “reveal [the Quad’s] intentions to hostile nations.” Discussions continued late into the night the day before the joint statement was to be released. Ultimately, the joint statement that was adopted included the IPMDA, owing largely to the decisive difference such capabilities played in Ukraine.
The agreement followed the earlier establishment of the Quad Space Working Group at the previous Quad meeting in September 2021. As global and regional tensions continue to rise, space cooperation will undoubtedly prove an increasingly critical element of the Quad partnership in future.
In fact, such efforts are already underway.
Cooperation in the space domain among the Quad countries is nothing new. While India has preferred more bounded bilateral agreements, the United States, Japan, and Australia have been cooperating closely on space defense and security issues for well over a decade.
Starting in 2011, the three allies have met annually to convene the Japan-U.S.-Australia Space Security Dialogue. Australia and Japan are also regulars at two of the United States’ major space-related strategic exercises: the Schriever Wargame, held at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, and Global Sentinel, a Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Tabletop Exercise (TTX) organized by U.S. Strategic Command.
Bilaterally, the United States and Japan boast particularly close cooperation owing to their unique security relationship. In May 2013, the two concluded a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on SSA system services and information sharing involving Japan’s Quazi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS), a regional time transfer and satellite-based augmentation system developed by the Japanese government to enhance U.S.-operated GPS in the Asia-Oceania region. Two years later, in April 2015, the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation were revised to include an independent section on space and cyberspace cooperation for the first time, and in January 2023, officials from both countries issued official declarations that their bilateral security alliance extends into outer space.
The United States and Australia also share a longstanding SSA partnership dating back to the 2010 session of the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN). The 2021 AUSMIN also included an affirmation of the importance of space security and discussion plans for a Space Framework Agreement.
In contrast, bilateral cooperation between Japan and Australia remains less defense-oriented in nature. The first bilateral space cooperation between the two, a formal agreement on Science and Technology (S&T) cooperation between the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Australian Space Agency (ASA) was concluded in July 2020.
Although India had previously preferred to contain its space cooperation to the realms of exploration and S&T, it made headlines in April 2022 upon concluding an MOU on SSA with the United States during the Fourth U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. The Defense Space Dialogue they had scheduled for later that year has yet to come to fruition, however. India and Japan have similarly begun hosting information exchanges for their respective space agencies focusing on space security, technological cooperation, and rules and norms.
Yet for space cooperation within the framework of the Quad, much remains to be determined. Under the Quad Space Working Group, the members agree to share satellite data to protect the Earth and its waters, enable capacity-building for sustainable development, and consult on norms and guidelines. However, issues of operationalization and liability – Is it legal to assume responsibility for policing the high seas under UNCLOS? How much firepower is each partner responsible for contributing? – mean that short term maritime action is unlikely to be forthcoming.
As a fact sheet released last Saturday by the White House pointed out, “The Indo-Pacific region comprises 65 percent of the world’s oceans, and countries throughout the region depend on the free movement of goods and people for their livelihoods.” All four Quad states in particular want to ensure continued freedom of navigation within the Indo-Pacific, and SSA is a key part of that effort.
According to a Japanese government official, “The 2022 IPMDA will involve the sharing of satellite data with partner countries in ASEAN, providing a significant deterrent to a potential Chinese move to establish a military base in the South China Sea.” Despite this, he added, “Capacity building is a major challenge for the future,” explaining that many countries in the region do not have the capacity to respond even when provided with such data.
While the application of space capabilities to maritime security remains a topic for further discussion, the Quad is already moving to provide satellite data and commercial space partnerships to countries in the surrounding region. Quad space capabilities will doubtless play an increasing role in the prosperity and stability of the region in the years to come.
Given that background, it is unfortunate that the Quad Summit, which should have been given more importance, ended as a footnote of the larger G-7 Hiroshima Summit. Further progress on quadrilateral space cooperation will have to wait.