President Biden on Friday will host a first-ever meeting of the leaders of the so-called “Quad” countries — the U.S., India, Australia and Japan — as his administration seeks to build on momentum to combine Asia’s most powerful democracies into a more formal grouping to confront and contain China.
The virtual meeting follows efforts by the Trump administration to elevate the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” into a go-to strategic alignment to shape the “Indo-Pacific” theater. Some regional analysts have expressed doubts, but China itself has been harshly critical of the budding alliance and has threatened to use it substantial economic clout to undercut it.
The Biden administration has avoided provocative language in describing its ambitions for the Quad, with the White House having made no public mention of China in announcing Friday’s meeting. U.S. officials said the agenda will include a number non-strategic issues, including COVID-19 and climate change.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said this week the meeting will underscore Mr. Biden’s hopes to elevate communication and coordination among like-minded partners in East Asia. Another White House official told The Washington Times recently that the administration is keen to work with the Quad on the manufacture and global delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.
Analysts say China has scored a soft-power PR victory over Washington with a high-profile campaign to deliver its domestic COVID vaccines to dozens of lower-income countries in hopes of winning new friends and influence.
But analysts say the Quad’s strategic significance potentially reaches far beyond COVID, surrounding China with prosperous, powerful democratic states that can check its regional expansionist goals.
An earlier version of the Quad begun in the last years of the George W. Bush administration quickly foundered, but regional strategists say the landscape has been far more promising since the Trump administration revived the idea.
Still, questions loom over the extent to which the U.S., India, Australia and Japan see eye-to-eye on aligning against what experts in all four countries describe as China’s increasingly powerful and autocratic influence on the global stage. Tokyo, Canberra and New Delhi all have major economic relations with China that could be put at risk if the confrontation grows too heated.
Mr. Biden has said America’s role in the coming years will be to rally democracies toward more effectively countering that influence. “We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world,” the president said in a virtual speech last month to the Munich Security Conference.
“We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that, given all the challenges we face — from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic — that autocracy is the best way forward,” Mr. Biden said. “Historians are going to examine and write about this moment as an inflection point.”
“We must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world. That, in my view, is our galvanizing mission,” he added.
Building on Trump
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has described the Quad as “one very positive thing” from the Trump era that the Biden administration “will be building on.”
State Department spokesperson Ned Price has said the administration seeks to approach China “from a position of strength,” by “work[ing] closely with our allies and partners.”
“That’s precisely what we’re doing with the Quad. … It’s precisely what we’re doing with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific to approach China from a position of strength,” Mr. Price told reporters recently.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken triggered a harsh reaction in China’s state-controlled media last month by holding a conference call with his Quad counterparts to discuss joint strategy on a range of issues.
It was unclear whether military aspects of the alignment were discussed. Elements of the U.S., Indian, Japanese and Australian navies gathered twice in November in the Bay of Bengal for their largest-ever joint military drills, sparking fiercely critical Chinese commentary on what some claim are U.S. effort to militarize the Quad into a kind of “Asian NATO.”
The Quad’s expanding momentum is all the more noteworthy given how the massive trade ties that China has with India, Japan and Australia. Chinese state media homed in on the economic bonds ahead of Mr. Blinken’s meeting with Quad counterparts in February.
“China can retaliate economically if red line crossed,” a headline in the Chinese Communist Party-aligned Global Times warned at the time.
The paper published a commentary piece this week by opinion writer Mu Lu, who noted that “the current framework of the Quad was built during Trump’s presidency to serve U.S. strategic competition with China.”
“The U.S. is fond of forming an alliance against a certain country, because it believes it can stack the odds in its favor and economize the consumption of its diplomatic and financial resources,” the commentary said. “But today, as the interests of countries are diversified, it is impossible for them to blindly follow the U.S.’ steps just because of Washington’s claims. There is not much the U.S. can give to its allies in exchange. Not to mention that the U.S.’ selfish nature has become increasingly known to the world.”
But some say Beijing’s loud protests signal its deepening unease.
Writing for Foreign Policy, Salvator Babones, an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia, said the Quad could be positioned to contain China where it hurts — rolling back Beijing’s drive to dominate the South China Sea and other waterways vital to Asian security and global commerce.
“The Quad is never going to go to war with China,” Mr. Babones wrote this week. But “what the Quad can do is provide a backbone for broad Indo-Pacific maritime security cooperation that tamps down China’s brinkmanship across the region.”
Felix K. Chang at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute said in a recent interview that the past few years have seen political leadership in the Quad countries “shift their views on China, due to its more aggressive behavior in the East China Sea toward Japan, its economic intimidation of Australia, and its willingness to escalate border tensions with India.”
“China has made it easier for ‘the Quad’ to gel,” said Mr. Chang, although he added the grouping “still faces many challenges before it can be considered solid.”