Commentary |
22 May 2022

China's own hotheadedness reinforces Quad's strategic importance

Biden aiming to shore up what the body stands for with first trip to the region. Originally published in Nikkei Asia.

Richard McGregor
Richard McGregor

For members of the Quad, the regional body comprising the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, which will meet in Tokyo on Tuesday, Beijing and its senior leaders are the gift that keeps on giving.

From the outside, the loosely organized body still bears the scar tissue of its first iteration more than a decade ago, when the four countries came together in response to the Boxing Day tsunami disaster in 2004.

After a number of meetings starting from 2007, the body fell apart, with leaders from all of the countries to different degrees ignoring it, or expressing reservations about its utility and messaging.

Years later, parts of the Indian system remain cautious about Australia's level of commitment. Japan still fears isolation. And with the possible return of Donald Trump to the White House on the horizon, the other three members worry about the return of U.S. isolationism.

But the actions and statements of Chinese leaders in the lead-up to Tuesday's leaders' summit, as they have done in the past, have buttressed the belief of all four nations in the Quad's importance.

In recent months, China has stood resolutely by Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Beijing has signed a security pact with the Solomons Islands in the Pacific. And ahead of Biden's meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, China has expressed anger at Washington and Tokyo's enhanced security cooperation.

Joe Biden's trip to South Korea and then to Japan for the Quadrilateral Dialogue, to give it its full name, will be the first visit to the region by the U.S. president since his election in November 2020.

"What arouses attention and vigilance is the fact that, even before the American leader has set out for the meeting, the so-called joint Japan-U.S. anti-China rhetoric is already kicking up dust," said Wang Yi, China's Foreign Minister.

Wang, who is fond of metaphors that evoke transient phenomena, once said he expected the Quad to disappear like foam from waves breaking on the beach. He is clearly unhappy that his prophecy has not come to pass.

Wang called both the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea before the Biden visit to warn them not to encourage "confrontation" between the U.S. and China.

But despite Wang's protestations, China's own behavior in the region has only reinforced the strategic convergence between the Quad members and nearby allies like South Korea.

In all four countries, leaders, officials and commentators who once advocated engagement with China have been forced to take a back seat to a now hawkish mainstream. There are few signs that the direction of policymaking in those countries will change.

The U.S. is settling in for a prolonged, multifaceted contest with China. Japan, under Shinzo Abe and now Kishida, is more wary of China than ever. Australian public opinion has turned sharply against China in the wake of Beijing's imposition of trade sanctions. India remains furious about the 2020 conflict with China on its border.

For Washington, the purpose of Biden's trip is not just to attend the Quad meeting but to shore up what the body stands before -- a strengthening of alliances and partnerships across the board to counter China's rise.

"We believe the (Quad) summit will demonstrate, both in substance and in vision, that democracies can deliver," said Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, ahead of the Biden trip, "and that these four nations working together will defend and uphold the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific. We think that message will be heard everywhere, [and] we think it will be heard in Beijing."

In Asia and Europe, the alliance system has been strengthened by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, especially as many countries worry about Beijing taking military action against Taiwan in the future.

But tensions remain, both inside the alliance system and elsewhere in Asia. Japan and South Korea's relationship remains rancorous, despite avowals by the new governments in both countries to improve ties. North Korea remains a dangerous outlier.

"Our intelligence does reflect the genuine possibility that there will be either a further missile test (by North Korea), including a long-range missile test, or a nuclear test or frankly both in the days leading into or after the President's trip," said Sullivan. "We are preparing for all contingencies, including the possibility that such a provocation would occur while we are in (South) Korea or in Japan."

Besides providing a platform for meeting each other, collectively and bilaterally, the Quad's own formal agenda remains modest. Previously, meetings have focused on the provision of vaccines, countering disinformation, building clean-energy supply chains and working together on responding to natural disasters.

In some respects, the modesty of the agenda is deliberate to allow the Quad to build its strength with deliberation and the support of all four members. There are signs this approach is working, with countries like South Korea and New Zealand already hinting that they might like to join aspects of the partnership.

Beijing will want to prevent any expansion of the Quad. Its actions, however, have only thus far helped it expand.