A China encircled by freedoms

The Indo-Pacific’s clubs of democracies and free-trade nations may do more to curb Chinese aggression than military pushback.

President Joe Biden speaks at the Quad summit in the White House, Sept. 24. Seated clockwise from left, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Leaders of four big democracies in the Indo-Pacific region – Japan, India, Australia, and the United States – met in person for the first time Friday. The summit at the White House was focused on crafting a vision for a free and open region, one defined by shared values, presumably not by a common fear of China. Based on China’s behavior in recent days, the group, dubbed “the Quad,” could have the potential to become an attractive force for good.

China’s latest military encroachments on islands close to its neighbors have certainly raised alarms. China has also curbed trade with Australia for criticizing it. Yet when Australia announced Sept. 15 that it would build nuclear submarines with U.S. assistance, China reacted in a very unexpected way.

The next day, it requested to join a free-trade group of 11 Asian-Pacific nations known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) formed in 2018. Joining this trade club would lock China into being a responsible player in the region, abiding by rules of open markets, fair competition, and minimal government manipulation – or something in the spirit of the Quad. Unlike its illegal taking of islands, it would need to follow rule of law.

For six days, this seemed like a new China. Then on Sept. 22, Taiwan, the island nation that Beijing sees as a breakaway province, said it also wanted to join the CPTPP. Taiwan was quick to point out why it is the better candidate. “We have the foundation of democracy and the rule of law so all our regulations are transparent and we respect private properties,” said John Deng, Taipei’s lead trade negotiator. 

Like the Quad, Taiwan prefers to lead by example. Its democratic values could give it a leg up in being admitted to the trade bloc. That possibility made China all too aware of its shortcomings. It lashed out. On Sept. 23, it sent 24 Chinese planes – including 18 fighter jets and two nuclear-capable bombers – into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The planes were more a signal than a real threat.

This series of events shows how clubs of nations based on freedom – either democratic freedoms or freedom of trade – can influence nations with little freedom. China is not being encircled by the military might of democracies as much by the light of those democracies.

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