Over the last few days, the Trump administration has been pretty clear about its strategy for the Quad, its dialogue forum with India, Japan, and Australia. It wants the four countries to fight Chinese influence in Asia together.
Intuitively, this should be a no-brainer for the rest of the Quad. All three of them have been facing heightened aggression from China in the past few months and need an external balancing power to deter further trouble. While India has had unprecedented problems along its Line of Actual Control (LAC), Japan has accused China of trying to alter the status quo in the East China Sea, and the Australia-China relationship has been beset by myriad difficulties – from espionage to trade.
Yet, when the Quad foreign ministers met in Tokyo recently, there was quite some divergence amongst them on what their countries should do together. While U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the Quad to “collaborate to protect our people and partners from the Chinese Communist Party’s exploitation, corruption and coercion,” his counterparts were not so forthcoming. Japan said that the Quad meeting was “not being held with any particular country in mind.” Australia and India too refused to spell out the Chinese threat and instead focused on various other challenges.
In the days that followed, Pompeo continued to play up China as a part of the Quad’s agenda. But if anything, America’s insistence that the Quad fights China only seems to discourage its partners from echoing Washington’s strong rhetoric on that country. How did Washington manage to squander away such obvious common ground?
The tragedy of President Donald Trump’s strategy in countering China is that it hasn’t been borne out through consistency in his actions. Early on, he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which many U.S. partners in Asia saw as a way to balance Chinese economic hegemony. Then, he cast doubts about Washington’s security commitments by consistently asserting that U.S. allies will have to fight more for themselves.
Even as recently as after the COVID-19 hit, Trump has suffered from mood swings about China’s President Xi Jinping. The U.S. president initially praised Beijing’s handling of the pandemic, before projecting blame by calling the novel coronavirus the “Chinese virus.”
For U.S. partners and allies in the Quad, all this provides strong reasons to be skeptical of American support against China, especially if their problems escalate into military conflict. Trump’s transactional “America First” policy means that Washington will not come running to their aid unless it sees a direct military threat to the U.S. homeland. The United States is protected from China by the vast Pacific Ocean. But for the rest of the Quad – especially India and Japan – the Chinese threat is already at the border and much closer to home.
And far from delivering comfort, Pompeo’s words only make that threat worse. Empty rhetoric from Washington will likely tempt China to test U.S. security commitments and leadership in Asia by being even more aggressive in the region. Beijing may well gamble that, so long as it doesn’t directly threaten the American mainland, aggression in the Himalayas or the Western Pacific will not provoke military conflict with the U.S. On the other hand, by managing to bully U.S. partners and allies in Asia without drawing the U.S. in, China would have successfully diluted American credibility in the region – and established itself as the sole hegemon.
The other problem with Trump’s foreign policy is the question of the world order. The U.S. has often sought to rally the Quad against China by saying that Beijing wants to change the “rules-based international order.” Yet, Trump himself has often attacked the existing world order, including various multilateral platforms, alliances and international organizations, on the pretext that America gets the short end of the stick. All this has thrown America’s own foreign policy commitments into question, making it more difficult to produce trust among Quad partners.
America’s partners and allies in the Quad – and in Asia at large – are now threading a fine line, threatened by Chinese aggression and unsure of American assistance when it will matter the most. Trump had a great opportunity to make use of the common Chinese threat, by playing the role of an effective glue in Asia and building a united front against China. Instead, his overhaul of America’s foreign policy traditions has left each nation to fend for itself. Washington cannot hope to lead a common response in Asia if it will only put itself first.