China’s Shifting Attitude on the Indo-Pacific Quad
In 2018, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi famously dismissed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as nothing more than dissipating “sea foam.” However, recent developments have forced Chinese observers to take “the Quad” — comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States — more seriously. Even before the “historic” March 12 virtual summit with Quad heads of government, Chinese strategists saw the group transitioning from a loose diplomatic configuration with little impact into a more institutionalized and worrisome arrangement. As I found in a review of three dozen articles from leading Chinese academics and government-affiliated analysts between 2018 and 2021, their prescriptions shifted from calls to drive wedges between the four states to efforts to marginalize the Quad by highlighting other regional institutions where the balance of influence works more in China’s favor.
However, Beijing’s leadership has not consistently followed this in-house strategic advice, often yielding to nationalistic policies that drive the Quad members closer together. In fact, other countries are reportedly considering their options for joining a Quad-Plus arrangement. China’s top officials will likely only consider the Quad a real threat if the group begins to deliver concrete results that undermine China’s economic appeal for the wider region, such as by pooling resources to provide alternative infrastructure investment financing or creating new supply chains that route around China. Unless the Quad is perceived to be cutting into its core strategic advantages, Beijing is unlikely to feel compelled to dial back its disputes with the four states and their regional supporters. Consequently, the Quad members should work to produce tangible goods for other countries in the Indo-Pacific to advance their own national interests and to possibly modify China’s assertive and antagonistic posture.
Containment We Can Handle
The Quad held its first meeting in May 2007 and then fell into dormancy for a decade. Its renewal in November 2017 piqued Chinese interest because it fit into a preexisting narrative that the United States — strongly encouraged by Japan — was scheming to undertake a Cold War-style plot to strategically encircle China by adding India as a member. If the United States was in fact pursuing a containment strategy, China would face pressure both along its eastern frontier, where Japan occupies key positions on the first island chain, and increasingly along its southern and western flanks. Some Chinese analysts have portrayed the Quad as an incipient “Asian NATO.” Others, on the other hand, are skeptical that the grouping will ever match NATO’s level of institutionalization even if it is still able to promote coordination on the South China Sea or otherwise complicate China’s diplomatic agenda. While Quad members have refused to specifically name China as a target of their discussions, Chinese observers never had any doubts that it was really all about them.
Chinese experts argue that basic economic realities — in particular China’s status as the largest export market for the United States, Japan, and Australia and largest overall trade partner for India (despite recent competition from the United States) — would dissuade the Quad partners from cooperating in a way that would seriously harm China’s interests. Some also doubted whether Washington could match its diplomatic moves with investments of sufficient scale to be meaningful. Wang dismissed the July 2018 U.S. announcement of $113 million in new regional infrastructure and governance assistance: “I thought I heard wrong … At least [that figure] should be ten times higher for a country with a $16 trillion GDP.” Implicit in this comment was the view that China could use its ability to channel much larger investments through the Belt and Road Initiative and that broad awareness of this asymmetry would reduce the regional appetite for the Quad.
President Donald Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and his perceived willingness to pick fights with close regional supporters, including Japan, over trade and other issues also eased Chinese analysts’ concerns about the Quad’s potential. Two Chinese scholars summed up this view in a 2018 article, asserting that Washington’s “capricious policies” on trade were leaving many U.S. allies and partners “confused, doubtful, and even dissatisfied with the Trump administration.”
Some Chinese observers argued that Beijing’s best response to the Quad should be to drive wedges between the four states, leveraging China’s economic appeal and perceptions that America’s commitment to Asian security was diminishing. Analysts regarded India as the Quad’s weakest link because of its aversion to alliances and serious policy disagreements with the United States on issues ranging from Iran to Russian arms sales. Hu Shisheng, director of South Asian studies at the influential Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, wrote in 2018 that China should lend public support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Act East” policy and consider joint infrastructure projects with India, though not under the Belt and Road Initiative label, (which he properly understood to be anathema in Indian circles). Xi Jinping’s 2018 Wuhan summit with Modi sought to stabilize a relationship beset by the 2017 Doklam border crisis and resulted in at least one apparent “win” for Beijing on the Quad, as India shortly thereafter declined to invite Australia to participate in the annual U.S.-Japanese-Indian Malabar naval exercise.
New Perspectives and Prescriptions
Chinese attitudes toward the Quad changed in late 2020 after the grouping showed increasing momentum. In particular, the Quad foreign ministers agreed to meet once a year starting in October 2020, Quad diplomats coordinated on the COVID-19 pandemic response as well as on regional infrastructure development, and India invited Australia to join the Malabar naval drills in November 2020. In addition, Quad-Plus groupings involving Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand began to take shape. Two scholars at the Central Party School note the Quad’s “increasing institutionalization.” Zhang Jie, a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, similarly remarks that these trends demonstrate the Quad’s transition from an “informal framework of cooperation” to a “formal regional organization.” These changes all predated the 2020 U.S. presidential election, but it seems likely that President Joe Biden’s early emphasis on shoring up strained relations with U.S. allies would lead Chinese observers to predict even more success for the Quad than might have been possible in a second Trump administration. Indeed, Zhang predicts that future achievements for the Quad under Biden will include greater alignment between the Quad, the G-7, and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance.
Although fixated on Quad initiatives, Chinese analysts acknowledge that growing disputes between China and its neighbors contributed to these developments. Zhang concedes that a “deteriorating” Sino-Australian relationship led Canberra to become “even more inseparable” from the United States, while the deadly, historic June 2020 Sino-Indian border clash upended earlier attempts to stabilize relations with India. Nevertheless, Chinese strategists characteristically refrain from critiquing their own government’s role in these disputes, for instance Beijing’s de facto embargo on Australian wine in retaliation for Canberra’s willingness to stand up to Beijing on its early mishandling of the pandemic and other issues or China’s use of force against India in the Himalayas, which Jeff Smith noted led India to become a “much more engaged and enthusiastic partner in the Quad.” Some have also discussed worsening relations with Japan in 2020, but stopped short of attributing some of Tokyo’s support for the Quad to China’s aggressive tactics in the East China Sea during the pandemic.
Some Chinese strategists took the Quad’s coalescence in 2020 as a cue that China should refocus its attention on sidelining the Quad from larger regional institutions and arrangements perceived to be less beholden to U.S. interests. Zhang Dongdong from the Central Party School argues that China should “deepen strategic interactions” and increase maritime security cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a “kind of counterweight” to the Quad. Zhang Jie contends that supporting pan-Asian economic cooperation through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, where China is a member, and even the Japan-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (which came about after the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership), where China is not a member, would “cushion” the Quad “and its negative impact on the regional order.” These suggestions paralleled a perceptible shift in Chinese diplomatic rhetoric, which began at the same time as the Quad’s upgrade to ministerial status in 2020, to refer to the group as a “small clique” (小圈子) whose appeal would be limited. In March 2021, China’s defense ministry spokesman accused the Quad of advocating “bloc confrontation” and “blatantly stirring up trouble among regional countries.”
Problems and Prospects for China’s Responses
Most Chinese strategists seem to believe that the Quad can be stunted by positioning China as an attractive economic and political partner for the Quad states themselves and those outside the group. Da Wei, formerly the top America hand at the Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, assesses China’s relations with its neighbors as the “main variable” determining the effectiveness of U.S. strategy in Asia, including the Quad. Mishandling those relations, for Da, is a strategic blunder that the United States will exploit to advance its own strategy. As a result, Da argues, China needs to reduce disputes with its neighbors to “prevent [them] from becoming a platform or outposts for the U.S. to keep China down.” Da and others also see Biden’s election as a chance to reset Sino-American relations, thereby reducing America’s appetite to contain China.
However, competing pressures have led Beijing to act in ways that undermine its ability to divide and weaken the Quad. These impulses include the domestic political need for leaders to come across as tough when challenged by others and a desire to use China’s growing military and paramilitary capabilities to more consistently enforce China’s territorial claims (or at least ward off provocations by others). Although many of the Chinese-language articles I reviewed argued that a more accommodating approach to China’s neighbors would best advance Beijing’s interests, it’s likely that some powerful stakeholders in the Chinese government fear that such a strategy would only embolden the Quad to act opportunistically. Such considerations were on full display over the past year, when the global pandemic led Beijing to toughen its approach to the region to both convince others not to take advantage of China during a period of internal turmoil and test the resolve of its rivals. During this period, Beijing managed to antagonize all four Quad partners through tit-for-tat political and economic disputes with Australia, deadly border clashes with India, increased China coast guard patrols near the Senkakus (which are claimed by Japan), and in a spiraling competition with the United States. The latter of these was highlighted most recently by Chinese Politburo member Yang Jiechi’s fiery public remarks during the opening of the recent bilateral meeting in Anchorage, responding to critiques of China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. Such tough actions have weakened China’s outreach to and reduced its favorability ratings in key Asian states and the United States.
A strategy of marginalizing the Quad may founder unless Beijing can moderate its tendency to escalate disputes with other neighbors and to respond forcefully to any perceived provocations. In 2020, for instance, China sparked the ire of Vietnam due to the aggressive behavior of China’s maritime patrols in disputed regions and major military exercises, reducing the prospects for a South China Sea code of conduct that could have strengthened China’s influence. Tensions with the Philippines are sure to rise as China’s maritime militia gathers at Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands. These types of controversies will only undercut China’s attempts to use Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a cudgel against the Quad. As noted earlier, broader regional concerns about China’s assertive actions spurred interest in the Quad-Plus during 2020 among states such as Vietnam, New Zealand, and South Korea, (where tensions over the 2018 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense dispute are still high and China’s favorability rating has plummeted to 24 percent).
Implications for U.S. Policy
While Beijing may ultimately be its own worst enemy in attempting to reduce the Quad’s appeal, U.S. policymakers should anticipate continued Chinese efforts to marginalize the group and raise the profile of other institutions in which China’s influence is stronger, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This puts a premium on highlighting the Quad’s contributions before a broad regional audience, including in areas such as vaccine distribution and climate change, and continuing to solidify Quad-Plus arrangements, which have most recently involved a combined naval drill in the Bay of Bengal involving the Quad states and France. Greater Chinese outreach to Southeast Asia should spur the Biden administration to quickly fill key vacancies, such as for ambassadors to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Vietnam, and to resume high-level participation in conclaves such as the East Asian Summit, which Trump skipped last year. While Quad members should avoid over-the-top rhetoric about China that plays into Beijing’s attempts to characterize the group as an anti-China “clique,” they should not refrain from explicitly calling out Chinese actions and policies that have escalated regional tensions. For example, Japan noted concerns about China’s new Coast Guard Law during a recent meeting of the foreign ministers of the United States, Japan, and Australia.
Even if its members are willing to overcome their aversion to openly discussing China, however, the Quad in its current form is unlikely to prompt major policy changes from Beijing. Paradoxically, Chinese strategists are encouraging the government to divide the Quad by smoothing over differences with India and others, which is exactly in line with the group’s calls for the “peaceful resolution of disputes.” Nevertheless, China’s leaders likely believe that they can afford to escalate tensions with New Delhi and other countries because they are convinced that economic dependence on China is sufficient to prevent the Quad from evolving into something more threatening. Moving forward, evidence that Quad initiatives could cut into China’s economic leverage would be a more effective wakeup call for Beijing than simply holding high-level meetings or issuing joint statements. One way to do this would be fleshing out alternative procurement chains that erode China’s advantage as the world’s dominant supplier of rare earth minerals and that build on recent discussions by Japan, India, and Australia to fashion supply chains less reliant on China. Without a perception that China’s leverage is at significant risk, Beijing should not be expected to recalibrate its regional balancing act.
Does China Have a Long Game?
Foreign observers sometimes overestimate China’s ability to develop and implement long-term strategies. With the Quad, Chinese strategists looked on as Beijing’s political, diplomatic, and military leaders deviated from their advice to siphon off India’s support for the Quad through positive bilateral interactions. They seem destined to be frustrated equally by growing concerns about China’s behavior in other parts of Asia that only incentivizes the Quad to work together more closely.
The Trump and Biden administrations, to their credit, effectively seized the opportunities created by China’s own mishandling of its regional relations to develop the Quad. Efforts to upgrade and broaden the group, however, have not yet altered the basic calculation informing Chinese policy. The Chinese government likely believes that it can limit the Quad’s prospects by leveraging its status as a top trade partner for many in the region and, if necessary, funnel massive investments to the region in ways that elude the United States and its counterparts. The final test for the Quad, as implied in these Chinese perspectives, will be whether it can move beyond summitry and deliver tangible results — through alternative infrastructure financing, access to critical technology, vaccine distribution, or other means — that reduce reliance on China and serve the bottom-line interests of the wider region. Unless convinced that Quad cooperation will truly threaten its core advantages, Beijing is unlikely to regard the costs of its nationalistic policies as outweighing the benefits.
Joel Wuthnow is a senior research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the U.S. National Defense University. This essay reflects only the author’s views and not those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. He is on Twitter @jwuthnow.