On March 12, in a virtual meeting clearly meant to stem the rising China challenge, the leaders of four democracies – the United States, Japan, India and Australia, commonly known as the ‘Quad’, prepared a package of 1 billion Coronavirus vaccine doses for ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific region before the end of 2022. The Quad nations also decided to meet in person before the end of the year, by which time working groups set up among them tasked with studying 5G, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity are expected to be ready with their reports.
All four of these democracies face complicated and even strained relations with China, with territorial disputes remaining a sticking point for many of them. In a follow up to the virtual summit, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told the media that the meeting touched upon “freedom of navigation in the East and South China Seas.” In a veiled jab at China, he added that "we're renewing our commitment to ensure that our region is governed by international law, committed to upholding universal values, and free from coercion." Several states with close ties to the U.S. have been in dispute with China since it declared much of the South China Sea (SCS) as its territorial waters. China, having themselves guaranteed safe civilian maritime passage in the area, has serious reservations over the American naval presence in the SCS, which is China’s maritime lifeline.
As a candidate, President Biden called for the rebuilding of America’s alliances, and by reinvigorating the Quad that virtually lay dormant for nearly a decade, he demonstrates where his priorities lie in future. Despite the rhetoric of cooperation, the four ‘democracies’ had actually never gathered for a Quad summit ever before. The real purpose of the 4-nation forum is clearly focused on how to minimize China’s growing influence, contain its rise, and maintain sound bilateral relations between each of the Quad nations.
Chinese media criticized the summit as an American plot against China suggesting that India, who has no treaties with the U.S. at all, should have stayed away. Chinese state-run Global Times claimed that the other three countries face “the embarrassment of being between the pressure from the U.S. and their own interests with China.” It should be no surprise that China would take issue with three of its maritime neighbors - all of which count China as its largest trading partner - engaging so closely with the U.S., which China views as exercising undue influence in the region as a legacy of the Second World War.
This virtual summit meeting comes at a time of great stress between the U.S., its allies, and China. Tense military standoffs between China and India could well be considered a part of hardening of attitudes towards China by these states. Australia needlessly kowtowed to the U.S. and publicly echoed Trump rhetoric when it called for an independent inquiry over the origins of Coronavirus, which drew swift and strong Chinese reaction.
With over 30 percent of Australian exports going to China alone, leading to the longest sustained growth in Australian economy, no pragmatic policy maker would have found it wise to anger its neighbor. . The Chinese do not appreciate public acts of diplomatic muscle-flexing, which has been shown after China exacted retribution from Australia in the form of banning imports. Japan too faces strained ties with China, after taking control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in 2012. For almost a decade, these islands have been considered at high risk of militarized conflict, and as it usually happens, the U.S. entered the fray years later after claiming that the islands fall under the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.
The four democracies seem to be threatened by China’s phenomenal l trajectory of growth, and American attitudes towards the Asian country have changed since China leapfrogged over the U.S. in many sectors. The U.S. thought open competition would see an inevitable victory over China’s growth. The opposite has happened. With 40 years of growth unparalleled in human history, China is now poised to dominate the post-pandemic world with an economic network that stretches to the Atlantic by land, and remains an important manufacturing hub for the rest of the world.
The trouble with the Quad states is that they all promote “a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.” In effect this means a region that will continue to be dominated by the U.S. at the expense of China, who sees itself as claiming its rightful place in its own regional front yard. The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ also stands in contrast to the historically used “Asia-Pacific” and is meant to position India as the opposition force against China’s dominance. China has a formidable presence in the region – geographically and economically The U.S. may still be the number one economy, but China is a close second, and is expected to eventually overtake its spot. No regional state can afford to take sides in a dispute in which China has chosen sides for them. To militarily confront China is suicidal for smaller regional states, and Asia in general. The answer lies in accommodating China’s rise and managing it peacefully for the benefit of mankind. We are witnessing an era of a historic passing of the baton.