Why some Pacific powers may be siding with US against China

The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP/File
Clockwise from top left, President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison appear on the monitor during the Quad summit at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on March 12, 2021.
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The Quad, which groups the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, began as an ad hoc humanitarian mechanism. Now it appears to be taking on the form of a security counterweight to China, the dominant economic power in Asia. 

On Friday, President Joe Biden will host Quad leaders at the White House, one week after Australia announced a nuclear-powered submarine deal with the U.S. and United Kingdom. 

Why We Wrote This

The evolution of a grouping of maritime powers in the Indo-Pacific region toward a security focus on China risks relegating its other goals, including the promotion of democratic norms.

Analysts say that a growing emphasis on confrontation with China could dilute the Quad’s identity as a grouping of four democracies promoting common values and liberal international principles. Some warn that its militarization could set off a round of nuclear proliferation in an already volatile region.

But there is widespread agreement that Quad powers that once prioritized diplomatic engagement with China have had to reassess their strategy in the face of Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and rapid military buildup. “I see China as the godfather – or the midwife, pick your analogy – of the Quad,” says Ramesh Thakur, an Australian academic who runs a nuclear nonproliferation center in Canberra. 

For President Joe Biden, convening a White House summit Friday of a once-obscure Indo-Pacific grouping of countries is all about signaling a post-Afghanistan shift to Asia and confronting an increasingly aggressive China.

By doing so, he is pushing on an open door: America’s “Quad” partners – Australia, India, and Japan – have all undergone their own pivots in weighing the risk of provoking Asia’s economic powerhouse against the benefit of closer U.S. alignment, including on security.

“The summit is further evidence ... of the turning point that the Quad represents for Indo-Pacific relations and for the era of intensifying competition with a more assertive China,” says Dhruva Jaishankar, executive director of the Observer Research Foundation America, a private Indian think tank in Washington.

Why We Wrote This

The evolution of a grouping of maritime powers in the Indo-Pacific region toward a security focus on China risks relegating its other goals, including the promotion of democratic norms.

“In all four countries there are internal debates over how much you should engage with China versus how much you should compete with China,” he adds. “And in all four, engagement with China has proven to have its limits, [strengthening] the hand of those advocating a tougher, more balancing position.”

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue began as an ad hoc humanitarian assistance mechanism following the deadly 2004 Indonesian tsunami. Its shift toward permanent status and closer security cooperation is not without risks, some experts warn. What some see as the Quad’s creeping militarization could open the path to a U.S.-led cold war with China – a path Mr. Biden asserted in his United Nations speech Tuesday that the U.S. is not seeking to take.

Moreover, some see China responding to a coalition it has always disliked by cultivating its ties with Russia, Pakistan, and Iran to form a potential counterweight in another cold war echo.

Others worry the emphasis on confrontation with China could go too far, diluting the Quad’s identity as a grouping of four democracies promoting common values and liberal international principles such as the rule of law, transparency, and freedom of maritime navigation. And they warn that the form the militarization is taking could set off a round of nuclear proliferation in an already volatile region.

“The intention from Japan’s perspective will be to stand up to China’s provocations while not making the Quad too confrontational,” says a Japanese diplomat who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

“A military flavor”

Still, it’s China’s behavior over the last decade – border skirmishes with India, economic retaliation against Australia for its support for human rights in China, militarization of the seas near Japan – that has led to a more muscular Quad, observers from all four countries say.

“There is more of a military flavor” to the strategy behind the Quad, says Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and who served in the White House when the Quad was formed in 2004. “But I think that’s in response to what Beijing is doing.”

Friday’s first-ever in-person Quad summit is not expected to deliver many concrete actions. The leaders will endorse a semiconductor development initiative aimed at securing supply chains and easing a global semiconductor shortage, White House officials say. A Quad plan to supply a billion COVID-19 vaccines to Southeast Asia by the end of 2022, first announced in March, is expected to get a new impetus. Mr. Biden said Wednesday that the United States would donate an additional 500 million doses through the end of next year.

But it’s the four regional powers’ newfound common purpose in standing together as maritime powers to confront an increasingly forceful China that will steal the show.

That is especially true after the agreement announced last week between the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom to supply Australia with eight nuclear-powered submarines.

The trilateral defense deal – awkwardly known as “AUKUS” – is not directly related to the Quad. But the timing of the announcement a week before the Quad summit, and the involvement of the U.S. and Australia, convince some experts that America’s Indo-Pacific partners are taking their gloves off to square up to China.

The nuclear submarine deal is about “the ability to sink the Chinese navy in 72 hours” and thus constitutes “a new level of deterrence,” Matthew Kroenig, a former senior Defense Department official, said shortly after the deal was announced.

Australia shops for subs

While all Quad members have shifted in their perceptions of China over the past decade, Australia’s about-turn may be the most dramatic.

As recently as the Obama administration, Australia was seen to be studiously limiting its military cooperation with the U.S. to avoid alarming China. In 2011, it opted for a revolving, limited deployment of Marines over the permanent basing of U.S. troops on its soil.

Now it has signed an accord that promises an unprecedented level of U.S. nuclear technology transfer and confirms the U.S. as Australia’s security guarantor, some analysts say. The U.K.’s involvement is also significant: It has expressed interest in working with the Quad in Asian waters.

None of which might have happened, these analysts say, if not for Beijing’s own behavioral shift over the last decade.

“Quad 1.0 was interred by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s willingness to pull Australia out in 2008 in recognition of China’s sensitivities and with hopes of developing mutually beneficial relations with China,” says Ramesh Thakur, emeritus professor at the Australian National University in Canberra and director of the university’s nuclear nonproliferation center.

“But then as much as anything else it was Australia’s growing discomfort with China’s rapid military expansion and its ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy over recent years that led to the Quad 2.0 we’re seeing today,” he adds. “It’s in that sense that I see China as the godfather – or the midwife, pick your analogy – of the Quad.”

Nuclear proliferation concerns

Still, some experts worry about the consequences of the sale of high-tech, highly enriched uranium-fueled submarines to a privileged member of an exclusive regional club in a region that already has four nuclear-armed powers – India, Pakistan, China, and North Korea.

“If [AUKUS] is handled well there could be benefits, but at the same time is anyone asking the question, what is the impact of saying only Australia is going to get nuclear submarines, and not South Korea? Does this prod South Korea further to consider going down the nuclear path?” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Education Center in Washington.

One possible solution, he says, would be to consider modeling the new subs after the International Space Station in the sense that South Korean and Japanese personnel might be allowed to participate in crewing the subs.  

Beyond the AUKUS submarines, some regional analysts worry that the Quad’s shift to focusing on countering China could undermine the group’s emphasis on the values they share and seek to promote in the Indo-Pacific region.

Already, some India analysts say that the Biden administration – which criticized its predecessor for coddling dictators – is biting its tongue about India’s democratic backsliding under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Why, they say? So as not to alienate a Quad member and key partner in the Indian Ocean and Asian subcontinent.

CSIS’s Dr. Green says discord over democratic values is unlikely at Friday’s summit. But he says the issue could come to a head later this year when President Biden announces attendees at his virtual summit on democracy in December.

“It seems the White House is going to set a very high bar for which countries can be invited” to the summit, he says. “That’s a bit awkward for the other members of the Quad, [as] the Japanese, Australians, and Indians would prefer a much more inclusive and relaxed definition of democracy.”

Even some experts who worry about the repercussions of the growing militarization of the Quad say they see ways that the AUKUS agreement could allow for the grouping to reemphasize its roots in meeting human needs and cooperation among democratic powers.

“The potential is there for the Quad to detach itself from the military dimensions of regional relationships like AUKUS to be a coalition that emphasizes humanitarian assistance and cooperative efforts like the vaccine initiative,” says Dr. Thakur. “Such a focus on common political values would certainly resonate around the Indo-Pacific.”

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