US President Joe Biden is holding the first in-person meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue , better known as "the Quad," an informal strategic forum of the United States , Australia , Japan and India - all democratic countries with a vested interest in countering China's rise in Asia.
US-China policy: Biden is bringing together Japan, Australia and India to stare down China
Biden will be joined in Washington by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga , Indian leader Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to discuss "promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific ," according to the White House .
The meeting comes at a time of great change for US policy in Asia. As the Biden administration moves to strengthen its diplomatic partnerships in the region, Japan is taking an increasingly hawkish view of China's military buildup. At the same time, Australia's AUKUS defense pact with the US and the United Kingdom has solidified Washington's commitment to Asia while making some important Southeast Asian partners uneasy.
At this critical point, what the Quad chooses to do next is more important than ever. Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Malcolm Davis said compared to its early roots under the George W. Bush administration, the Quad had evolved from a "low key political and economic dialogue" to a very significant player in the Asia Pacific region.
In April 2020, relations between Australia and China took a major downturn after Australia's Morrison called for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19. Beijing retaliated by imposing punitive restrictions on Australian goods and the relationship is yet to recover.
Meanwhile, ties between Washington and Beijing that deteriorated under Trump have faltered further under Biden as the US solidifies its diplomatic partnerships in Asia with a view to containing China.
The new American outreach was enthusiastically welcomed in Australia and earlier this month the two governments joined the UK to announce AUKUS, an agreement by which the three nations would exchange military information and technology to form a closer defense partnership in Asia.
Japan has also welcomed greater US involvement in the region. After attempting to pursue a warmer China policy in the early years of Chinese President Xi Jinping's time as leader, Japan has grown increasingly wary of Beijing over the past year.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said India was now the most cautious member of the Quad and how far the group is willing to push on defense cooperation and antagonizing China might depend on Delhi.
But writing in the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs in early 2021, Amrita Jash, a research fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, said India was still moving closer to the US militarily, including new and enhanced military exercises, arms purchases and technology transfers.
Part of the cooperation involves improved tracking and targeting technology, Jash said. "(There is) an imperative need for India to keep close watch on Chinese (military) movements along the Himalayan border and in mapping China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean," she added.
Glaser said there was one other determinant in how far the Quad would be willing to go in opposing Beijing.
"Another factor is China's own behavior. The more willing China is to threaten other countries' interests, threaten economic coercion ... the more countries will be willing to push back," she said.
United on Taiwan
The Chinese Communist Party views Taiwan -- home to about 24 million people -- as an inseparable part of its territory, despite having never controlled it. President Xi has also previously warned that Beijing would not rule out the use of force to "reunite" Taiwan with mainland China.
Australia has regularly joined the US in voicing its support for Taiwan and in July, Japan's deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, said in a speech reported by local media that Tokyo should join forces with Washington to defend the island from any invasion.
Glaser said she believed the August statement could have preempted a reference to Taiwan in the meeting of the Quad leaders this week, which would be an unusually strong step by the Indian government.
A united Quad could help deter any further aggression by the Chinese government toward Taiwan, according to Ben Scott, director of the Australia's Security and the Rules-based Order Project at Sydney's Lowy Institute.
"It is self described as a club of maritime democracies which automatically excludes most of Southeast Asia," Scott said. "(And) the center of gravity for (US-China) competition is in Southeast Asia."
In a September 17 statement, Indonesia said it was "deeply concerned" about an arms race in Asia Pacific, and called on Australia to respect international law and its commitment to peace and stability. A day later, Malaysia said the AUKUS deal could provoke other powers to "act more aggressively in the region, especially the South China Sea."
By being part of a larger cooperative agreement with Japan and India, Scott said the US can present a more diverse face to Southeast Asia, among other parts of the continent -- one that isn't solely concentrated on military brinksmanship but also economic and political cooperation.
Beijing has pointed to the AUKUS deal as an example of how Washington is only focused on military power in Asia, Scott said. In comparison, China this week formally requested to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an 11-country free trade pact that the US withdrew from under Trump.
Joe Biden to rally regional support for China containment strategy at Quad summit
Joe Biden will host the first in-person summit of the Quad countries – the US, India, Japan and Australia – at the White House on Friday as he ratchets up the reorientation of US foreign policy towards the Pacific and the containment of China.
The summit, which will seek to deepen ties within the ad hoc grouping, will take place just nine days after the surprise announcement of the Aukus security agreement between Australia, the UK and US, built around the sharing of nuclear-propulsion technology with Australia for its new submarine fleet.
Aukus and an invigorated Quad are the two central pillars of the US president’s signature foreign policy, which some are calling the Biden doctrine: bolstering the world’s democracies against the spread of authoritarianism by building a web of alliances.
When Biden, India’s Narendra Modi, Australia’s Scott Morrison and Japan’s outgoing prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, meet in the White House, there will be announcements on Covid, with the aim of producing a billion vaccines in India by the end of next year, and on climate action and a green shipping network.
Its full name is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and the four members defined its role in a virtual summit in March this year as “a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific”, and a “rules-based maritime order”.
Both phrases are euphemisms for confronting Chinese coercive tactics in the South and East China seas, which have included grabbing islands and atolls, threatening ships and rattling sabres across the Taiwan Strait. China is not mentioned by name in the Aukus agreement, Biden’s UN address or in most Quad statements to perpetuate the pretence that “this is not aimed at one particular country,” as US officials continually insist.
It is a claim no one believes, least of all Beijing, but it is designed to play down the combative side of the defence agreements and leave the door open to changed Chinese behaviour in the region.
But Beijing cannot have failed to spot the significant growth of military cooperation in the region. The US has held extensive military exercises with India this year. And while the nuclear submarines in the Aukus agreement will take up to 20 years to materialise, it provides for more immediate sharing of AI and quantum computational technology, which is increasingly the key to Indo-Pacific rivalry.
“The image we have of two ships exchanging shells has nothing to do with how we fight modern naval warfare,” said Bruce Jones, author of a new book about naval competition, To Rule the Waves.
“We are talking about ballistic missile destroyers, which are hubs in an extraordinarily sophisticated network of sensors, on land, sea and air and satellites, putting together a vast array of systems knowledge on the Chinese side and on our side. That is the work of some of the most advanced software in the world.”
Aukus comes five years after the US, UK and Japanese navies signed their own, less heralded, cooperation agreement. And in July, the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, visited Manila and persuaded the Philippine leader, Rodrigo Duterte, to keep a bilateral defence pact in place, allowing for large-scale combat exercises.
Biden’s approach is the latest turn in a US China policy under successive administrations that has reflected the characters of the presidents involved but also the evolution of Chinese assertiveness into blunter forms.
In Barack Obama’s first term, the administration’s policy was still largely based on the assumption that China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and integration into the global economy would soften the nature of the regime. The rise of Xi Jinping made it clear that would not happen. The second Obama term was consequently supposed to bring a “pivot to Asia”, the face-off against China, but it never quite materialised as imagined, in large part because of Middle Eastern chaos in the wake of the Arab spring, the rise of the Islamic State and Obama’s reluctant decision to order a surge in Afghanistan.
Trump made trade disputes with China a centerpiece of both his foreign and domestic policies but it was not part of a broader strategy. Trump burned bridges with allies like South Korea and Japan, screamed at the then Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, in their first telephone call and pulled the US out of talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Biden has tried to draw lessons from both predecessors, focusing his approach on building alliances, ignoring calls from all sides to stay in Afghanistan and following the Washington maxim “personnel is policy”. In the White House, Kurt Campbell, the leading advocate of the “pivot to Asia”, has been installed as “Asia tsar” with a staff of political appointees that dwarfed other departments, particularly the European director’s office.
At the state department, Foreign Policy has reported that a “China House” is to be established, potentially adding between 20 and 30 staff members to the bureau watching Beijing’s global moves.
Gregory Poling, senior fellow for south-east Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the short-term aim of America’s growing network of partnerships and alliances was to deter further efforts of Chinese coercion against its smaller neighbours.
“The long-term strategy is to leverage an increasingly large global coalition to try to impose diplomatic costs, in the hopes that if China sees that its behavior on these fronts is undermining its global goals it will change course,” Poling said.
So far at least, there are no significant signs of that strategy succeeding.
“I’m seeing very little evidence of that right now,” said Bonny Lin, director of the CSIS China Power Project. “China is responding to the Quad in its own way, using a cold war mentality, viewing Quad as very much geared toward confrontation with China, and as a result actually moving in a direction that’s not productive.”
For example, Xi has made it clear to the UN secretary general, António Guterres, that cooperation on Covid and climate will be withheld in the hostile environment the Chinese blame on Aukus and the Quad.
Poling argues that given that the alternatives are either conflict or ceding the Pacific to China and abandoning US regional allies, Biden has little choice but to pursue his current path.
"That path is getting narrower by the day," he said. “It's much smaller today than it was 10 years ago but I don't think it's entirely gone. And it's really the only option we have. "