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The Quad: An “Asian NATO” against China?

Mar 22, 2021

If there were any doubts as to the direction of President Joseph Biden’s Asia policy, especially on China, one should just look at the rapid institutionalization of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the “Quad”. 

Barely two months into office, the new U.S. administration has organized the third Quad ministerial-level meeting and, more dramatically, the first-ever Quad summit. The White House admitted that the palpable urgency behind the Quad gatherings reflected “the importance we place on close cooperation with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.” 

As Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan put it, the Quad has now become the pivot of U.S. policy in the region, “a foundation upon which to build substantial American policy.” No less than former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has praised the Biden administration’s decision to “continue former U.S. President Donald Trump’s move to reinvigorate the [Quad] group,” emphasizing that the power grouping’s strategic consolidation represents the U.S.’ “most important task in Asia." 

What we are witnessing is nothing less the gradual establishment of an “Asian NATO” with 21st century characteristics: namely, a flexible, ad-hoc, multidimensional alliance, which is ostensibly designed to preserve a “free and open” order in the Indo-Pacific just short of forming an overt military bloc against the U.S.’ rivals, particularly China. 

The ‘Big Boys’ Club 

In geopolitics, diplomatic denials are often a strong indication that a major shift is afoot. In fact, this was precisely Washington’s posturing in the run up to the historic Quad Summit, a 90-minute virtual meeting featuring Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. 

Earlier this year, the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, also known as Biden’s “alter ego”, barely mentioned the Quad in his “first major foreign-policy speech”. The same is true with Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which struck a consciously multilateralist tone and emphasized the importance of cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other middle powers in the Indo-Pacific. 

Just days before the unprecedented meeting, the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki insisted that the inaugural meeting among the four heads of state will not focus on China per se, but instead “a [full] range of issues”, including “the threat of Covid, to economic cooperation, and of course, to the climate crisis.” 

What’s even more interesting is the fact that both the Quad foreign ministers meeting last month as well as the Quad summit in early-March shunned any direct mention of China in their official joint statement.

Eager to portray the Quad as a constructive platform for multilateral cooperation, Biden and his counterparts focused on ‘vaccine diplomacy’ and climate change. The four powers established a new initiative to provide one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries, especially in Southeast Asia. 

With the U.S.’ return to The Paris Agreement, the Quad members also discussed joint efforts to combat climate change by reducing carbon emission, especially given the reticence of conservative governments in Australia and India to rapidly move towards carbon-neutral economies in the coming decades. 

Thus, Washington and its allies tried to portray themselves as ‘big boys’ heroically doing the heavy-lifting when it comes to providing international public goods, from provision of free vaccines to mitigating climate change. 

The Fall and Rise of the Quad 

The Biden administration’s excruciating efforts to dispel any characterization of the Quad as an anti-China alliance is also rooted in history. Over the past two decades, the Quad has gone through various permutations, which only reveals its uncertain trajectory

From an ad-hoc multilateral effort to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations during the 2004 Tsunami, which devastated numerous countries across the Indian Ocean, the Quad found many instances of common ground, and came dangerously close to becoming a de facto military alliance in the mid-2000s. 

The primary force behind the grouping’s rapid institutionalization was former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a staunch advocate of a so-called “democratic security diamond” against China. 

During his first stint in office in the mid-2000s, the Japanese leader actively encouraged the U.S. and Australia to court India out of its traditionally “non-aligned” foreign policy. The gambit, however, fell into disarray, when Australia, under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and India, under pragmatic Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, ditched Abe’s plan in favor of warmer ties with China.

It was not until 2017, when a series of hawkish leaders took over Washington, Canberra, and New Delhi, that the Quad experienced a strategic rebirth. Eager to contain China’s rise, the Trump administration actively courted right-wing leaders in Japan (Abe), India (Narendra Modi) and Australia (Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison) as part of its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy against Beijing. 

Between 2017 to 2020, the Trump administration oversaw a series of high-level meetings among Quad members, from the informal gathering in Manila in 2017, to the first-ever ministerial-level meetings in New York in 2019, and a year later in Tokyo. The problem, however, is that Trump proved too unreliable and pugnacious, especially for smaller regional players such as the ASEAN. 

If anything, Southeast Asian nations categorically expressed their dismay with Washington’s “New Cold War” against China by adopting their own ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific initiative, which clearly reflects the widely shared view of Beijing as an indispensable stakeholder in regional affairs. 

There is a reason why China has criticized the Quad as a “mini-NATO”, which represents a disruptive form of “selective multilateralism”. As Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian lamented shortly after the inaugural Quad summit, “We hope relevant countries will…refrain from forming closed and exclusive cliques”. 

The New “New Cold War” 

As far as the Quad is concerned, Biden is picking up where Trump left off, albeit with a calibrated diplomatic rhetoric and sophisticated multilateral strategy. From its inception, the Quad summit was suffused with ideological undertones, as the four powers presented themselves as guardians of a regional order “anchored by democratic values”. 

The Quad leaders also indirectly accused China of “aggression” and “coercion” against its members, citing “[trade] coercion of Australia, their harassment around the Senkaku Islands, their aggression on the border with India.” 

Japan’s leader, however, was more directly critical of China over Twitter, claiming that the four powers shared “strong opposition to China's unilateral attempts to change the status quo,” referring to disputes involving Beijing and its neighbors from the Himalayas to South and East China Seas. 

In response to China’s rising maritime ambitions, the Quad powers seem intent on expanding joint naval drills and overall defense cooperation across the Indian and Pacific oceans. 

It’s also crystal clear that the Quad summit’s focus on non-traditional security issues such as vaccine distribution and climate change was a direct response to China, which has taken the initiative in global vaccine provision to developing nations as well as pledged to create a ‘carbon-neutral’ economy by the middle of the century. 

Amid growing anti-China sentiment in the West, and liminal strategic anxieties over China’s almost certain emergence as the world’s largest economy before the end of the decade, the Biden administration is ineluctably moving towards establishing an “Asian NATO” under the aegis of the Quad. Whether this strategy will succeed is another question. 

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