For Washington, the Quad is the heir to what Obama called the “pivot to Asia,” the crux of what Trump accepted from Abe as the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” and the prime symbol of Biden’s extension of that concept to multilateralism anchored in shared democratic values. Holding a virtual summit of the Quad leaders as his first high-profile foreign policy event, Biden raised the standing of the Quad (and the Indo-Pacific) to the point his foreign policy will be judged by its fate. In doing so, he prioritized the US-Japan relationship above all other bilateral ties; this was visible when Prime Minister Suga in mid-April made the first foreign leader’s visit to Washington. At stake is multi-layered, Indo-Pacific architecture: the closeness of the US-Japan bond, the role of Australia in a tight triangle, the aspiration to incorporate India into a substantive Quad, and the exploration of a Quad Plus with multiple additions, including in Southeast Asia and South Korea.
Momentum is set to continue in June as Japan is seeking an in-person Quad summit on the sidelines of the G7 after Suga visits India, plans that could be scuttled by the explosion of cases of COVID-19 in India. The host UK has invited India and Australia along with South Korea to the June 11-13 G7. Although India was likely to remain shy about discussing China and military cooperation openly, more attention to joint technology initiatives was expected, along with details on the big vaccine plan, according to Japan’s Nihon Keizai Shimbun, which reported that Foreign Minister Wang Yi was touring Southeast Asian states in response to the rise of the Quad and other US efforts to pressure China.1 A June meeting would test the degree the other two countries, notably India, accept the US-Japan approach refined in the April summit. If the surge in COVID-19 cases in India throws a wrench in the timing in May and June, momentum persists.
For Beijing, the Quad is no less than “NATO of the East.” It symbolizes Cold War containment. Comments range from it is unrealizable, since India would not join and others recognize their Asian identities and economic interests would be endangered, to its threat to China’s interests is serious and must be forestalled through vigorous action. Chinese sources have responded to Biden’s promotion of the Quad, after strongly critiquing the Trump administration’s support for this concept, with intense warnings that this is the most significant departure yet from the era of “win-win” relations of the past half-century. Blocking its formation is a high priority in 2021.
In October 2020 Wang Yi said, “What [the Quad] pursues is to trumpet the Cold War mentality and to stir up confrontation among different groups and blocs and to stoke geopolitical competition.” This contrasts with his rhetoric in 2018, when he called the concept of the Quad “sea foam” because it would soon dissipate.2 Chinese in 2021 are even more serious about it.
The Quad can be differentiated into three dimensions. First, it is a security framework targeted at China’s designs to change the status quo by force. Second, it is an ideological conception, much as the “free world” was during the Cold War. Third, the Quad is fast becoming a buffer for the protection of military and dual-use technology being exported to China and for supply chain resiliency in order not to depend excessively on China and face vulnerability and then pressure. All three themes are raised both by supporters and Chinese critics of strengthening the Quad.
While Washington is inclined to accentuate the positive role of the Quad in the pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific, which reaffirms the liberal international order, Beijing attacks it as a process of containment and outcome of Cold War thinking, aimed at blocking China’s rise. Rhetoric about the Quad at the end of 2020 and in the first third of 2021 has sharply conflicted and, much more, of late. After Taiwan, this has become the central theme in Chinese criticisms of both US and Japanese foreign policy, interpreting pursuit of this new regional grouping as the epitome of hostility and containment, reflected in security moves, ideological threats, and technological de-coupling.
In the first months of the Biden administration the Quad was transformed from a vague ideal under a president who showed little interest in multilateralism and demonized China in terms unlikely to be endorsed by others to a semi-institutionalized strategic grouping with a growing agenda of cooperation. Many exchanges in DC think tanks or between US and Japanese foreign policy experts explored the prospects of the Quad. In turn, Chinese analysts were probing what this new configuration represents.
Comparing US and Chinese conceptualizations of what the Quad represents, in its various dimensions, is the objective of this article. In March and April, the primary objective in building the Quad was solidifying US-Japan coordination, which is the foundation in the Quad edifice; so that became the focus of both US and Chinese narratives. Already in late 2020 Chinese were blaming Japan for its quest for the Quad;3 in 2021 criticism intensified,4 as if little could be done about the US once Biden had taken leadership over the Quad, but given splits within the LDP and criticisms on the left, Japan could be better targeted.
The overall US and Chinese perspectives
In DC think tank interpretations of the Quad, as pursued by the Biden administration, it is the epitome of a US grand strategy in response to China’s aggressive ambitions, which had been lacking, at least since China moved away from Deng Xiaoping’s cautious foreign policy, whether in 2007-08, 2012-13, or—in the opinion of some—much earlier. The Quad is primarily a security framework to check aggressive maritime behavior in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and even the Indian Ocean. It is secondarily a values-based grouping, much as NATO was in the Cold War era. Finally, given accelerating technological change with dual-use implications, the Quad has a vital supply chain and export control element. One can detect a five-step process in establishing the desired grouping. First, the US has to put its own house in order and begin to “build back better” after the chaotic Trump era. Second, but without a time lag, US-Japanese joint clarification of the goals and range of the Quad is essential, forging the core of the new grouping. Third, the Quad requires the institutionalization of a four-country grouping with the easier target, Australia—already a US ally and close to Japan—and the most daunting challenge, India. This process is moving quickly in 2021 but could take years with lingering uncertainties. In the fourth stage, relations with China must be addressed and, if possible, stabilized. Finally, the Quad Plus, a flexible expansion to more countries for specific purposes, is expected to emerge.
In Guoji Zhanwang, No. 1, 2021, new developments in the Quad were assessed, noting its 2004-2007 origin, November 2017 revival, three subsequent years of growth, and how China should respond. Australia’s refusal in November 2007 due to concern about China was a cause of the hiatus although trilateral and bilateral ties built a foundation for more, notably the US-Japan-India ties from 2011 and the Japan-India-Australia ties from 2015. Abe-Modi bilateral ties added to the momentum. This process went beyond a US-centered regional alliance system. Countries rallied around the concept of the Indo-Pacific region, and Australia’s stance shifted. Yet the US had not necessarily fully committed to contain China, and while this goal was clear, countries were split on what it meant or on how to address China’s resistance. Although the Quad faced its own challenges, Chinese analysts were wary of it from early times. The key shift was Trump’s tough stance against China from the end of 2017, joining with Abe’s abiding interest. The power imbalance with China drove India, as the Quad put security squarely in the forefront.5 Yet much is also made of the ideological thrust and the supply chain reconstruction pursued by the Quad.
Prospects for the Quad are limited, Chinese insist. Security interests are insufficient. Economic dependence on China differs to the point none of the four apart from the US is willing to see ties with China become too tense, and they will try to avoid an official multilateral security agreement. Threat perceptions diverge. In India and Australia, the population is deeply split. Only the US is in a rush to turn the Quad into an “anti-China grouping.” Given India’s military weakness and lack of dependence on the US for arms, there is no way it will proceed to a high degree of military integration. It is little inclined to cooperate closely, clinging to “strategic autonomy.” Even if India seeks to use the Quad to balance China in the Indian Ocean, it is unwilling for the Quad to lead it in pursuing bigger regional objectives in the South China Sea or the Western Pacific. Still, India could become more supportive to build its military capabilities. The 2020 clash with China has altered the balance inside India, increasing alarm toward China and making it more resolved to boost the Quad. Chinese acknowledged this shift but mostly doubted India’s resolve.
There is little chance to institutionalize the Quad, as Washington desires, but the Quad’s ability to counter China could increase, and China needs to preempt this possibility. China can be the biggest factor in determining the future of the Quad, using its economic prowess, especially with Australia and India, getting them to tighten ties with China even if they do not formally abandon the Quad. Progress is being made with India, and a restart with Australia building from economic to political ties in within reach. Thus, the attractiveness of the Quad to both can be weakened, writers still insist.6
Chinese regard the Quad as a challenge aimed at containment, given that interference in China’s plans to coerce Taiwan and seize complete control over islands in the South China Sea is equated with containment. Thus, the Quad is viewed as worsening the regional security environment and a threat to peace and stability, causing a zero-sum competition. Yet readers are told that the Quad has made little substantive progress in security, and future success is doubted. Still, China needs to step up engagement with its regional members so that they do not view it as a strategic challenge. Unlike the Quad, China claims to stand for inclusive, open, cooperative regionalism. It cannot allow the “democratic four” to determine the region’s future; such a values-based approach is at odds with the shared interests of the majority of states and would undermine ASEAN, which China is defending. To counter the Quad China seeks to revert to ASEAN-led inclusive regionalism. It stresses that a big blow to ASEAN would result if Vietnam and others were ever to join a Quad Plus. Bur even for Vietnam it would be sensitive to join in an “anti-China” grouping. China’s defense is to rally ASEAN, concentrate on India, play on divisions in Australia, and warn Japan of perilous consequences. In Jiji.com on April 16 China was reported to have expressed serious concern to the United States and Japan over the treatment of Taiwan at the Biden-Suga summit.7
In March and April Chinese responses to the meetings that strengthened the Quad were barbed without ruling out steps to drive a wedge between participants. Less assertive policies toward India and Australia could portend a wedge strategy. Anger directed at Japan for endorsing the US strategy for making this alliance the bilateral core of the Quad and inserting Japan into the Taiwan issue was heated, but the widened split between progressives and conservatives there could create an opening for China. US designs were denounced, Japan was seen as playing into US hands, and recent vitriol toward Australia and India could not be reversed on short notice.
On April 19, after the Biden-Suga summit, Wang Wenbin, deputy press director of China’s ministry of foreign affairs, demanded that the US and Japan immediately stop interfering in China’s internal affairs. They should instead address their own past invasions and human rights violations in other countries. They are only using the human rights issue as an excuse, he said.8 Yet, according to Yomiuri on April 18, People’s Daily was cautious about arousing worsening emotions toward the US and Japan; so, it handled the Taiwan issue with some sensitivity.9
The Chinese case belittling the Quad’s prospects in a string of articles in Global Times10 from March-April 2021 is as follows: the US lacks the capacity for it; the US image is too tarnished to win acceptance; states cannot count on the US to compensate for the losses when China reacts; the Quad countries lack the economic base and autonomy for it; Quad countries depend too much on China’s economy; India is the weak link and is too wedded to Russia to go far with the Quad; countries are at odds with many anxious about the divisiveness and costs to ties with China; the image of Quad consensus belies the reality that the Quad has reached its peak. The tone is both anxious that a threatening entity is arising and reassuring that its future is bleak.
Japan-US relations and China’s Response
The core of the Quad is the reconceptualization of the Japan-US relationship in a broader and China-driven regional context. Under Abe and in the shadow of Trump, Japan positioned itself to lead in pursuit of multilateralism without China, to work closely with the United States to forge a core of new regionalism, to press the US to be tougher on China on security, and, at the same time, to woo China as an economic and even political partner. This was sustainable due to the Trump effect, leaving Sino-US relations and US regional leadership in disarray, and to the Xi Jinping calculation that China could fill the gap through a “good-neighbor” policy targeting Japan among others, reducing US economic pressure. The pandemic gave Xi greater confidence and put ties with Abe on hold, and the planned “cherry blossom” Abe-Xi Tokyo summit of 2020 was postponed indefinitely as ties unraveled. With Joe Biden’s reconstruction or reinvigoration of the Quad and Suga Yoshihide’s eager embrace of the new US policy, China’s challenge grew.
Sino-Japanese relations soured over three precipitating developments. First, Biden’s election gave Tokyo confidence that it could tighten relations with Washington in a regional framework. Second, Beijing decided it was time to up the military pressure on Taiwan, while also stepping up maritime pressure around the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, jolting Tokyo to more openly stand with Washington in warnings about this behavior. Third, as Biden prioritized the Quad, Suga responded enthusiastically, causing Xi Jinping to react negatively to Japan’s leader. In March-April 2021 as the Quad began to be institutionalized and US-Japan relations tightened, Sino-Japanese relations rapidly deteriorated, reversing the 2017-20 mood of rapprochement.
In a 90-minute phone conversation on April 6 with his Japanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered what Global Times called a “timely reminder” for Japan, after “a slew of hostile moves and statements” to stop “heading in the wrong direction by ganging up with a ‘certain superpower.’” The report said Wang had presented China’s diplomatic bottom line to Japan, sending a message intended also for any other country considering collusion with Japan to counter China or threaten what it regards as regional stability. On the eve of Suga’s summit with Biden, Wang Yi warned that Japan, as an “independent country,” should view China’s development in an “objective and rational” way, instead of being misled by the US. For China,
a zero-sum situation has arrived, and Japan in 2021, with the Quad, is making a wrong choice.11
As is its habit, China is sharper in warning US allies and partners of dire consequences than the US. On security, values, and technology, Japan was seen as responsible for the breakdown of an atmosphere that a year earlier was deemed promising for Xi Jinping to make a state visit. Wang accused Japan of giving in to the US, making groundless accusations over Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and no longer honoring the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Just one day after the 2+2 meeting, Zhao Lijian, the foreign ministry spokesman, had charged that “Japan, driven by the selfish aim to check China’s revitalization, willingly stoops to acting as a strategic vassal of the US.”12 Angering China was wording that indicated Japan’s involvement in cross-strait relations and intention to cooperate with the US in the event of a military clash of the PRC and Taiwan. Later, Wang Yi even asked Japan not to forget its identity as an Asian country, presumably at odds with both boosting the bilateral US alliance and forging the Quad with it.
Chinese media responded harshly to the April 16 joint statement from the Biden-Suga summit. In a Global Times editorial on April 17 Japan was lumped with the US as the main threat to
China and to peace in the Asia-Pacific. The editorial attacked the joint statement of the Biden-Suga summit for its references to the Indo-Pacific, Taiwan, freedom, democracy, human rights, international law, and a free and fair economic order. It commits Japan to follow the US in Asia, with US forces occupying Japan, which is a semi-sovereign country, and to back US hegemonic thinking in preventing China’s rise. Moreover, Washington and Tokyo are planning to extend their alliance through the Quad with more states to join in opposing China under the banner of “shared values.” Yet the world is multi-layered and views confrontation, occurring against China’s will, as most dangerous. Splitting the so-called “Indo-Pacific” destroys cooperation. The US is attacking China’s high-tech companies and also dragging Japan and others into excluding China in supply chains. The US and the West are interfering in internal affairs. Recently Japan had cooperated to gradually restore Sino-Japanese relations, but it has suddenly changed course, joining in the US containment strategy under US pressure and its own willful, short-sighted expansionist strategy, especially concerning Taiwan. This is the message sent on April 17.
Given divergent responses to the Suga-Biden summit in Japan, China may see an opening. Three of the main six newspapers were positive, including Sankei on the far right, Yomiuri with the largest circulation, and Nihon Keizai Shimbun serving the business community above all. Yomiuri on April 18 praised the new era of close alliance, saying it is important that Japan and the US, which share universal values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, unite to increase the trust of the international community and encourage China to change. Japan will need to be prepared to fully coordinate its strategy with the United States and share responsibilities. “The joint statement is a compass for the Japan-US alliance and shows unity for the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Suga said at a press conference. “We will work together to prove that democracy is superior in the 21st century,” Biden emphasized. In February, Biden signed an executive order instructing relevant ministries to review the supply network for critical products. This is a common issue for Japan as well, which would like to strengthen cooperation in advanced fields such as high-speed and large-capacity communications, “5G,” artificial intelligence, and quantum technology. The US has grown more cautious about China’s military-civilian fusion strategy, which seeks to connect advanced private sector technology to military advantage, and has tightened its export restrictions, Yomiuri noted.
On the progressive side, the three main papers were critical of the April 16 summit. In Mainichi on April 18 Suga’s US visit was criticized, arguing that in the news conference hosted by Biden Suga was trapped as Biden named China the mutual challenge as democracy stands against authoritarianism. While Suga tried to keep the focus on pursuing stability in international relations, the question raised gave him no opportunity. In News Post Seven on that day, the same theme appeared, claiming there was a split between Suga and Biden on China. While the US is consumed with concern over gun violence, it is shifting responsibility for the China question to Japan. Actually, the two sides could not agree on China and Taiwan, and the US is putting Japan in the front row to face China, but the Japanese people do not want to risk war or to pressure China.
Mainichi warned that by becoming embroiled in the Taiwan dispute, Japan will be most affected. What Suga has done contradicts his promise to “build a stable and constructive relationship with China.” After this summit, he should send a message that neighboring China is a diplomatically and economically important country. A unique strategy for China that is not dependent on the United States is required. Tokyo Shimbun on April 18 clarified that Japan, located between the US and China, cannot be completely devoted to the US. It needs a sense of balance. The US has high expectations for Japan’s cooperation in the “New Cold War” with China, the pressure from China will grow, and Suga failed to openly explain Japan’s position, thus the opportunity was lost for the two leaders to closely coordinate their preferred policies toward China. Biden pushed through a collision trajectory, and Suga folded. This criticism from the left points to the political divide that exists.
Of the four security issues that have recently flared, the Indo-China border strife has calmed, while the other three have been aggravated: the Taiwan Strait danger, South China Sea tension newly focused on the Philippines which Suga plans to visit, and the Senkaku vicinity, tenser due to Chinese ship movements and relaxed rules for them to resort to arms. The Quad is more about the South China Sea, but the US-Japan alliance has become more alarmed by danger in Taiwan. As the US repeats its assurances to Japan over the Senkakus, it is receiving more open support from Japan on Taiwan, close by in the East China Sea.13 Apparently, Japanese officials are divided in making explicit the private hard line they take on Taiwan, fearful of antagonizing China more and ending the rapprochement since 2017. In the first half of April, the defining question, as the US sent a high-level delegation to Taiwan, was: would Suga reaffirm the 2+2 language of March or even go beyond it? US officials were also seeking more on human rights in China and Hong Kong and on Japan-ROK relations, as the core of the Quad was the prime focus. Suga obliged the US on these points, arousing China’s ire after its warnings had gone unheeded.
Wang Yi’s phone call with Motegi Toshimitsu on April 5 was a turning point. After 3-4 years of mostly upbeat Sino-Japanese relations on the surface, China is taking off the gloves over at least three factors: The Quad, Taiwan, and human rights. In all three cases, the Biden administration has helped to nudge Suga to clarify Japan’s stand. Japan did not need a lot of persuasion. Wang’s words that China has done its utmost to fix ties, which “have hit a new crossroads” and that Japan must cease being a vassal of the US were tough talk prior to Suga’s discussions with Biden.14 They conveyed a warning to Japan that the “Abe-Xi honeymoon” is ending and a return to the acrimony of the first half of the 2010s lies in store or, perhaps, something even worse.
Values, the Quad, and China
The Sino-US value gap widened when the Trump administration in 2020 demonized the Chinese Communist Party as if seeking regime change. However, there was little effort to coordinate a multilateral response to Uyghur genocide and Hong Kong repression, when those issues rose to the fore. The Biden administration has taken human rights issues more seriously, seeking more outspokenness from Japan and making it a cornerstone of the Quad. On April 9, in its first budget blueprint, it said it would commit a “significant increase in resources” to advance human rights and democracy in the fight against authoritarianism. In direct exchanges with Chinese leaders such issues were raised, as they were in the virtual Quad statement and the US-Japan 2+2 joint statement, leading to sharply worded rebukes from the Chinese side in March to be followed in April by further attacks, many directed at Japan for acceding to the US rhetoric.
On March 18, 2021 Yang Jiechi told Tony Blinken that “I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize the universal values advocated by the United States, or that the opinions of the United States could represent international public opinion.”15 A big theme of late in China is reform of global governance based on principles of equality and justice, as Beijing’s leading role is stressed in building a “community of common destiny.”
With Biden’s appeal to join in “extreme competition” with China, there is talk of the Quad being “anchored by democratic values.” “Freedom of navigation” is contrasted with “coercion” to change the status quo by force. Repeated references to the “rules-based order” link values to security. In contrast, China’s behavior is called a “wolf warrior” approach steeped in change through aggression. Only recently has Japan echoed the US rhetoric, as when Foreign Minister Motegi criticized China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang and its Hong Kong crackdown, although this language has not been accompanied by action, such as sanctions.
Values are second on a Chinese list of factors drawing the Quad together, citing language about freedom versus authoritarianism. Calling the desired region “free and open” points to values as does stressing a grouping of democracies. On the Japanese side, a Chinese source asserted, it reflects an old rightist aspiration to become a political great power, which its historical legacy makes difficult. Boosting US ties, expanding the range to the Indo-Pacific, and heralding the Quad grouping reflects this ambition.16 In the PRC perspective, China’s behavior is in no way responsible; Quad members must not be responding realistically to threats. Instead, they must be driven by some irrational emotions. In the case of the US, one reads that there is little China can do: “China cannot fundamentally alleviate the US’ envy, jealousy and hatred against China.”
Chinese writings have never ceased to attack US criticisms as driven by values steeped in Cold War thinking, rather than objective analysis. Japan has often been spared such criticism since it has refrained from similar criticisms or toned them down. Such caution lowered the risk of China playing the “history card” by associating today’s Japan with the pre-1945 imperialist aggressor. In order to forge strong economic ties and keep political ties from hitting an impasse, Japanese have exercised great caution. Yet Abe chose to raise values issues more even if he spared China as a direct target. Only under Biden, anchoring the Quad on values, has Japan gone somewhat further much to China’s consternation. Washington is clearly the biggest influence in meddling in China-Japan ties. “The US doesn’t want ties between China and Japan to get better, and Japan is accommodating itself with the US on the latter’s China policy,” said Wang Jian, who warned Tokyo that such a move will eventually backfire. Wang also wondered, pointedly: “We don’t want China-Japan relations to hit bottom, nor for Tokyo to tie itself completely with the US. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he wants stable ties with China, but where is his action?”17
In China’s view, it was alarming that before his meeting with Biden, Suga voiced “concern” over cross-Taiwan Strait relations, saying. “It is important for Japan and the US to cooperate and use deterrence to create an environment where Taiwan and China can find a peaceful solution.” The Chinese added, China-Japan ties will spiral downward sharply if Japan gets involved in the Taiwan question, as it is the bottom-line question, and any foreign military interference will invite the fiercest retaliation from China. Japan is in urgent need to form independent diplomatic policies, and acting as a US pawn in containing China in the Asia-Pacific is also a disgrace for Japan, a big power in this region. One observer was quoted as saying, “Japan’s current policy toward China has fully exposed its destructive role that threatens regional stability… opening doors for NATO countries to the Asia-Pacific region has increased instability in this region.”18 For China, values are linked to history. If Japan speaks out, the “history card” is ready to play.
De-coupling, the Quad, and China
A major theme in the Biden-Suga summit was de-coupling in some leading-edge technologies
such as 5G telecommunications, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. Biden and Suga showcased their commitment, not only against China, but in favor of technological innovation and secure connectivity. Supply chain resiliency will be critical to the post-pandemic growth of the North American and Japanese economies, it was asserted, citing semiconductor chips as essential for all electronics and that Suga and Biden are determined to ensure their availability.
The US-Japan agreement follows the Senate Foreign Relations Committee preparing to vote on a bipartisan bill that aims to counter China’s global influence, which would allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to new initiatives aimed at helping the US succeed in long-term ideological, military, economic, and technological competition.19 Suga and Biden discussed a contribution of $2 billion to build a reliable communication network to compete with Chinese companies such as Huawei and for cooperation in strengthening the supply chain of products and raw materials that are important for security. Yet Japan’s commitment may be in doubt, given the leanings of some within the ruling party, led by the LDP secretary-general Nikai Toshihiro, and the Komeito party, part of the governing coalition. Aware that Japan depends more on the Chinese economy and is afraid of systematic boycott movements within China, the US must be pleased with Suga’s determination. For economic security, the Biden administration is pushing China out of cutting-edge technology, strengthening the embargo on cutting-edge semiconductors, which are the “most important strategic supplies,” and reconstructing the semiconductor supply network, but Japan is also launching a public-private project for ultra-fine semiconductors.
On April 21, it was reported that a senior Chinese diplomat accused the Australian government of triggering a downward spiral in relations not, as commonly thought, by asking for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic in 2020, but by “conniving with the United States in a very unethical, illegal, immoral suppression” of Huawei in 2018, banning it from Australia’s 5G network. He said Australia was among the first countries to “forcefully” accuse Huawei of posing a security threat and even charged that “one of your retired senior politicians claimed in his memoir that he’s the one” who had persuaded Trump about the security threat of Huawei, alluding to Malcolm Turnbull. Relations could return to normal, he asserted, if Australia provided “a fair and just and non-discriminatory business environment” to Chinese businesses and ensured it did not “obstruct” people-to-people exchange programs.20 These remarks point to the significance of technology in the Chinese pushback against Australia and the Quad.
Technology stands at the core of today’s strategic competition between China and the Quad countries. Countries with innovative advantages will drive the digital economy, gain political power and military strength, and shape global norms for technology use, according to a CNAS report, laying out a blueprint for techno-democratic statecraft in the Quad. This report examines technologies propelling rapid change, competing visions for technology use driving geopolitical strains, and divergent Quad members’ approaches to technology.21
New Delhi’s move to reopen the door to Chinese investment after border disengagement has clearly shown that India needs cooperation with China rather than long-standing confrontation, one Chinese source argued, concluding that India will frustrate boosters of the Quad. The US, readers are informed, has consistently been frustrated by India’s reluctance to systemize the mechanism of Quad as a military group and make it the kernel of a larger Asia-Pacific alliance like NATO. Thus, the Quad has reached its ceiling and internal contradictions are expected to emerge. Enduring India-Russia ties also will give India less maneuvering space in major power politics. India’s center of foreign policy is never the US. It will not give up other opportunities for the sake of the US, especially the chance of claiming hegemony in the Indian Ocean. China has economic levers to use on India, making it the weak link on technology controls as well.
The US looked back on three months of the Biden administration pleased with the progress made toward institutionalizing the Quad, while China had grown increasingly disturbed by the emergence of this new entity as well as by the related extent of Japan’s tilt toward the US. On security, the Quad signaled joint resolve in opposition to “wolf warrior” aggression, especially in the South China Sea. On values, it represented a sharp rebuke to the spread of authoritarianism and a call for the revitalization of democratization. And on technology, the Quad called for relocating sensitive supply chains to reduce vulnerability to China’s control over them. Each of these arenas aroused concern in China, which faulted “Cold War” alliances and ideology as it also claimed to represent globalization, openness, and free markets rather than protectionism.
The March 12 virtual summit and the April 16 Suga-Biden summit were transformative events in the first months of the Biden administration leading toward the institutionalization of the Quad. They revealed a newly strategic approach in Washington and receptivity in Tokyo even as Beijing responded with warnings. As the US focus for security turned to Taiwan, it was doubtful that this could be a Quad issue, and even in Japan many were wary. For all the values talk centered on Xinjiang genocide and Myanmar’s brutal suppression of democracy, Japan would not impose sanctions over the Uyghurs and India was even more reluctant to press the Myanmar military hard. As for for technology, 5G telecommunications served as a rallying cry, but Japanese felt more entangled with China economically and hesitant to go as far as the US desired. In this view, the Quad still has a long way to go on security, values, and supply de-coupling.
The Sino-US confrontation intensified on March 18 with dueling opening remarks at the Alaska meeting of foreign policy officials. For the US, the Quad embodied the notion that it faced China as the leader of a multilateral grouping, much as NATO has faced off against the Soviet Union. For China, it was viewed as a serious threat of containment but also somewhat dismissed as an unrealizable illusion. India was seen as the weakest link, Australia’s role was somewhat doubtful, and even Japan was seen as vulnerable to Chinese pressure. While striving to weaken US resolve, China saw more hope elsewhere, but it remained wary of the Quad.
In the rest of 2021, the US intends to build on the momentum of March and April for the institutionalization of the Quad with the US-Japan alliance at the core—while we can anticipate more intense Chinese efforts to drive wedges between the US and the other three. Considering how badly China alienated India and Australia in 2020 and how much “wolf warrior” thinking guides its behavior—as in disputed maritime areas—it is unclear that China is inclined to make sharp course reversals that would allow for wedge driving. Yet given reservations in its three partners about key themes, such as Taiwan’s defense, Myanmar’s democracy, Xinjiang genocide, and economic de-coupling, US hopes for rapid institutionalization of the Quad are unlikely to be realized. Much depends on China’s choices; the Quad’s momentum is driven by responses to it.
1. Tobita Rintaro, “Japan Seeks First In-person Quad Summit in June on G-7 Sidelines,” Nikkei Asia, April 8, 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Japan-seeks-first-in-person-Quad-summit-in-June-on-G-7-sidelines
2. Abhijnan Rej, “China and the Quad: From Sea Foam to Indo-Pacific NATO: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Recent Remarks on the Quad Are a Substantial Shift in Tone,” The Diplomat, October 15, 2021.
3. Chen Qinghong, “美日印澳四边安全对话进展及前景,” Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 6, 2020, pp. 44-52.
4. Global Times, April 17, 2021.
5. Liu Aming, “四方安全对话”的新发展及前景探析,” Guoji Zhanwang, No. 1, 2021, pp. 88-109.
7. “U.S.-Japan statement refers to “peace and stability in Taiwan Strait” – Jiji,” Reuters, April 16, 2021.
8. “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on April 19, 2021,” Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, April 19, 2021.
9. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 18, 2021.
10. Global Times, numerous articles from March 8 to April 22 on the Quad.
11. Xing Xiaojing, Wu Zhiwei, and Zhao Yusha “Chinese FM’s call ‘timely reminder’ for Japan at crossroads: observer Ball in Tokyo’s court to improve relations with Beijing: experts, ”Global Times, April 6, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202104/1220369.shtml.
13. Demetri Sevastopulo and Robin Harding, “US pushes Japan to back Taiwan at Biden-Suga summit,” Financial Times, April 13, 2021.
14. Xing Xiaojing, Wu Zhiwei, and Zhao Yusha, “China’s FM’s call ‘timely reminder’ for Japan at crossroads: observer.”
15. “In First Talks, Dueling Accusations Set Testy Tone for U.S.-China Diplomacy,” The New York Times, March 18, 2021.
16. Liu Aming, “’四方安全对话’ 的新发展及前景探析.”
17. Xing Xiaojing, Wu Zhiwei, and Zhao Yusha, “China’s FM’s call ‘timely reminder’ for Japan at crossroads: observer.”
19. Axios, April 14, 2021.
20. The Guardian, April 21, 2021.
21. Martijn Rasser, “Networked: Techno-Democratic Statecraft for Australia and the Quad,” CNAS, January 19, 2021.