Flashpoints | Diplomacy | East Asia | Oceania | South Asia

How China Strengthens the Quad

Chinese belligerence further strengthens the motivation for Australia, India, Japan, and the United States to keep the Quad together.

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
How China Strengthens the Quad
Credit: Pixabay

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad has regained strength in the face of an aggressive China. The foreign ministers of the four countries – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – are scheduled to meet in Delhi for a face-to-face meeting in late September. That New Delhi is playing host to the Quad ministerial meeting amid the COVOD-19 pandemic is particularly noteworthy. The countries are reacting to increased bullying by China. The grouping has gained greater traction since early 2020 because of Beijing’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic and the manner in which it has attempted to hijack multilateral institutions, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The four countries are also concerned about global supply chain problems, recognizing the vulnerability of their dependence on China. The upcoming in-person foreign ministers meeting appears, at the least, aimed at sending a strong message to China about the resoluteness of the Quad. 

That said, the Quad does face some minor headwinds, which are likely to be easily overcome, due to political changes in both Japan and the United States.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s sudden resignation was a blow to the Quad because Abe was one of the major proponents of this minilateral initiative, even if his departure does not shift Japan’s policy. Under Abe’s leadership, Japan had become a driving force for the Quad. His strategic vision and determined leadership in the face of China’s belligerent behavior will be missed by Japan’s Quad partners. Although Abe was not successful in changing Japan’s pacifist constitution, he has been instrumental in bringing important changes to Tokyo’s approach to regional and global security. 

For New Delhi, Abe was a reliable pillar of support. Takenori Horimoto says that the big push for Japan to build closer relations with India happened in 2004-05 because of anti-Japan protests taking place in China, leading Tokyo to reduce the risks to its investments by moving to other countries. Thus, although India-Japan ties had been gaining momentum even before Abe came into office, the Abe-Modi dynamic helped a great deal. It led to strengthened military and security ties, including military exercises across all the branches of the military, and a civil nuclear agreement. With Abe leaving office, it remains to be seen how bilateral India-Japan relations as well as Japan’s broader strategic engagement in the Indo-Pacific will play out with a new leader in office. 

Second, the coming presidential elections in the United States in November also raises some concerns about a possible change in leadership. While Joe Biden and the Democrats are not against the Quad or the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, a change in the political powers that be could introduce short-term policy turbulence. It will take a few months for a new administration to settle into office before addressing some of the political and strategic issues in the Indo-Pacific region. That said, China’s aggressive behavior will invariably draw any administration’s attention. A Biden administration may differ from the Trump administration more in terms of style and rhetoric than actual policy when it comes to China. Indeed, the two parties are competing over who is harsher on China.

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Set against these small challenges is China’s behavior, which serves to promote the Quad. India and Australia, the other two Quad parties, have recently faces even greater aggression from Beijing.

Since early May, China has crossed into Indian territory and engaged in violent clashes, including the one at Galwan in June that resulting in the deaths of 20 Indians and an unknown number of Chinese troops. Since then, there have been several military and diplomatic discussions between India and China, but with no progress. Over the past few days, there has been further activity, with India reportedly occupying areas south of the south bank of Pangong Tso (Lake); the military talks that followed, as usual, have been inconclusive. China claimed that India violated the consensus and crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In India, both the foreign ministry and army put out statements blaming China. The expectation appears to be that the border confrontation will escalate further. India, for good measure, has also banned another 118 Chinese apps. 

Similarly, Australia has been under strident Chinese attack almost from the beginning of 2020. China has been using coercive trade practices to target Australia for asking for an independent investigation into the origin of the novel coronavirus. In the latest move, China targeted Australian barley in response to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement of a new Australian legislation that would “tear up” the Belt and Road Initiative agreements with the state of Victoria that run into billions of dollars. A few days earlier, China targeted Australian beef exports. Prior to this, it was the Australian wine that was banned by China. But Jeffrey Wilson of the Perth USAsia Centre says it is not that the Chinese government cares about wine, beef, or barley, but “the real game is to create societal splits that pressure the Government to change foreign policy toward China.” 

China’s crude attempts to put pressure on other countries have met with increasingly stiff resistance, of which the Quad is a clear manifestation. In India, there have even been suggestions for the Quad to assume a military role. Thus, whatever minor headwinds the Quad faces are likely to be easily overcome by the rapidly changing attitudes in the region because of China’s unrelenting pressure on others.