China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

China’s Two-Pronged Response to the Quad

Beijing has been circumspect in its criticisms overall, but doesn’t hold fire when it comes to attacking the U.S. secretary of state specifically.

Shannon Tiezzi
China’s Two-Pronged Response to the Quad
Credit: U.S. State Department photo

The Quad – consisting of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – held its second-ever foreign ministers meeting this week in Japan. Notably, the meeting came amid the global COVID-19 outbreak, furthering highlighting the importance ascribed to the gathering by its participants. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that it was “the first ministerial-level international conference in Japan since the outbreak and spread of COVID-19.” Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cut out every part of his planned Asia trip except for the Quad ministerial.

The renewed commitment to the Quad is not lost on China. The grouping pointedly brings together four Indo-Pacific democracies committed to a rules-based order – with China standing as the often-unidentified threat to both democracy and international rules in the region.

Ahead of the meeting, Beijing reiterated its concern. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin was asked about the upcoming Quad meeting in a press conference on September 29. He replied by advocating against “ forming exclusive cliques”:  “Instead of targeting third parties or undermining third parties’ interests, cooperation should be conducive to mutual understanding and trust between regional countries.”

Wang added, “We hope the relevant countries can think more of the regional countries’ common interests and contribute to regional peace, stability and development rather than doing the opposite.”

The Foreign Ministry did not comment directly on the Quad meeting after the fact, due to the ongoing national holidays in China. But the Chinese Embassy in Japan did issue a brief statement, which largely echoed Wang’s remarks warning against “exclusive cliques” and the targeting of third parties.

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After that relatively anodyne critique, however, the embassy statement unleashed a broadside directed at Pompeo specifically. The statement accused the top U.S. diplomat of having “repeatedly fabricated lies about China and maliciously manufactured political confrontation.” The statement added that “his schemes have not won popular support, and will never succeed.”

That continued China’s preferred tactic of attacking Pompeo personally for “slander” and “lies” about China. In the context of the Quad, it seems Beijing is attempting to drive a wedge between the United States and potential partners – a feat made easier by Pompeo’s eagerness to explicitly frame the grouping as a counterweight to China, in a way his counterparts are not entirely comfortable with.

As Abhijnan Rej, The Diplomat’s security editor, noted in his overview, there was no joint statement issued after the Quad ministerial, and the readouts issued by individual counties had some interesting differences. Most eye-catching, though, was that Pompeo used his opening remarks to go on the offensive about China, while his counterparts were more circumspect. “As partners in this Quad, it is more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP’s exploitation, corruption, and coercion,” Pompeo declared, referring to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

None of the other ministers mentioned China or the CCP by name in their opening remarks, preferring instead to speak in general terms about the importance of an “open and inclusive Indo-Pacific” and a “rules-based international order.” Australian’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne specifically emphasized that “The Quad has a positive agenda,” tacitly rebutting analysis that frames the Quad as largely an anti-China grouping. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar even said that the Quad’s goal is “advancing the security and the economic interests of all countries having legitimate and vital interests in the region” – which would include China as well.

U.S. diplomats later doubled-down on the anti-China motivations behind the Quad, with one official commenting that “there’s no avoiding the fact that it’s China and its actions in the region that make the Quad actually matter and function this time around.”

It is common knowledge among analysts that the Quad is, in fact, motivated by deep concern about China’s growing power and assertiveness on the world stage. But it’s telling that the other members of the group are deeply reluctant to say this – and, in fact, go out of their way to counter such perceptions. While Washington seems content or even eager to pursue a Cold War redux, its fellow Quad members are more circumspect, preferring to talk about their shared vision for the region rather than pointing fingers.

China is well aware of this discrepancy – and also remembers that the original iteration of the Quad fell apart precisely because its members did not want to directly confront Beijing. That explains why China’s official response to the Quad has been two-pronged: issuing relatively mild statements of concern on the one hand, but issuing full-throated denunciations of Pompeo on the other. With the U.S. secretary of state the most forward-leaning in his anti-China pronouncements, he is the easiest and most tempting target for Beijing. That allows China to send a sterner warning while not directly antagonizing Australia, India, and Japan over Quad deliberations.

As the Chinese saying goes, “the bird that sticks its head out gets shot.”