The United States has taken another step toward a showdown with China, and is determined to continue uniting countries with the goal of creating “a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” What does the renewal of the Quad’s activity mean, and why is China likely to be unhappy with it?
People often wish for simple solutions to complex problems. This invites praise, demonstrates activity and shows the rabble that the problem was so simple and free of danger that even a child could have solved it. That’s why Americans liked Donald Trump’s China containment strategy — a massive, completely straightforward, American-style, audacious attack of China that included sanctions, demonstrations of military power, the capture of hostages and enormous information campaigns.
The Republicans insisted that if they lost the 2020 presidential election, the Democrats, led by Joe Biden, would end this power politics strategy and lay down arms in the face of Beijing. Many Chinese political scientists had the same opinion, and believed that in order for China to improve its relations with the U.S., all it had to do was wait out Trump, since Biden would stop bullying China.
Yet both parties turned out to be wrong. Biden did not stop containing Beijing, but he did move from Trump’s simple methods to more complex, long-term and therefore effective strategies that would be dangerous for China. One-sided actions were replaced with the creation and strengthening of anti-Chinese alliances, and tactical attacks in the form of sanctions and threats were replaced with a long-term siege — the creation of tension points around China and an anti-Chinese atmosphere throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
4 Comrades and China
One element of this siege was the recent creation of AUKUS, which allowed Australia to receive new kinds of weapons and officially included Great Britain in the Chinese containment scheme. Additionally, on Sept. 24, Biden took steps to strengthen and organize already-existing measures: He held the first in-person Quadrilateral Security Dialogue summit with the presence of leaders from the U.S., Australia, Japan and India.
This group of four countries is, in its essence, a form of interaction between the United States and the major geopolitical players and biggest countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In contrast with NATO, the Quad does not have a fundamental treaty, nor formal responsibilities of the members toward each other, nor united military and political organization tools. In fact, it is simply a diplomatic forum.
According to some experts and journalists, all of these characteristics are pros, not cons. The absence of a formally written and agreed-upon plan allows the countries to collaborate on a whole spectrum of anti-Chinese issues — from the production of COVID-19 vaccines to the organization of joint trainings — whereas the lack of formal responsibilities means that the unifying factor of this alliance is not in documents, but in the common interest of the elite. This common interest is quite simple: the containment of China.
Government leaders tried not to mention China by name during the recent summit in Washington, D.C., but everyone read between the lines.
“So, we stand here, together, in the Indo-Pacific region, a region that we wish to be always be free from coercion, where the sovereign rights of all nations are respected and where disputes are settled peacefully and [in]accordance with international law,” Scott Morrison, Australian prime minister, declared pompously. According to the words of Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, the summit promoted the strengthening of cooperation between the countries in their drive toward “a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” Free from Chinese influence, of course.
Experts agree that the D.C. summit led to the strengthening and institutionalization of the four-way alliance. Jeff Smith, research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, writes, “The first-ever in-person meeting of Quad leaders this week will send a powerful signal to adversaries abroad and critics at home that the Quad is here to stay.”
However, another question remains: Why does the U.S. need the Quad when AUKUS exists? Yes, unlike France, India and Japan supported AUKUS in one way or another and do not see the new alliance as a threat to their interests. But for some reason, the two countries were not included. The reason India and Japan were not included in AUKUS is that neither country is seen by the U.S. as a reliable, comprehensible and unconditional ally in the containment of China.
Let’s Gather in a Circle
According to experts, the answer to this question is quite simple. Americans need an alliance not only for direct actions of the West against China (for which purpose AUKUS was created), but also as a foundation on which small and medium countries from the Indo-Pacific region, primarily Southeast Asian countries that are part of ASEAN, can be gathered for the containment of China. The only other possibility is the Quad, which includes Japan and India — countries that are “local” to Asia and have their own interests in ASEAN, which can be incorporated into American interests.
Experts maintain that instead of spending time on reorganizing regional relationships concerning the containment of China, the global anti-Chinese strategy should be made in respect to the current geopolitics in the region. These geopolitical relations whose creation is based on the interests of local countries might, in theory, actually become the foundation for a global anti-Chinese organization.
In February 2021, an institute in Singapore released statistics from a massive survey that it had conducted among the elite — scientists, politicians, businessmen and NGO employees — from countries in ASEAN. The Chinese would probably not be happy with these results.
No one doubts China’s power: 49% of those surveyed state that Beijing is the most influential political player in the region (by comparison only 30% voted for the U.S.) and 76% name Beijing as the most economically influential player, as well (only 7.4% were in favor of the U.S.). The local elite does not have positive opinions about such a situation: 88.6% of those who named China as the most powerful political player in the region and 76.3% of those who considered it the most economically powerful player stated that they were very worried about China’s leadership. In sum, only 16.5% of locals are positively inclined toward China, while 63% do not trust China (by contrast, the respective numbers toward the U.S. are 48.3% and 31.3%).
But at the same time, Americans should not be happy with the survey results, either. Despite all of the fears and worries in relationship to the threat of China, 40% of the surveyed elite would choose Beijing if a choice between the U.S. and China arose. By all appearances, this would be a choice made in the face of despair — a significant percentage of those surveyed simply do not believe that the United States will be able to defeat China and become a reliable military and political “roof.”
Currently, it is probable that the number of those who do not believe in the U.S. has grown even more — primarily due to the circumstances concerning the withdrawal of American armed forces from Afghanistan and the betrayal of a significant number of its allies there. Thus, the U.S. has to back its own promises up with the promises of local powers — India and Japan. But India holds an ambiguous position in the region as well; less than 20% of those surveyed trust India.
“In each case the reasons behind a negative relationship are individual. For example, in Malaysia the intellectual elite traditionally blames India for its actions towards the Muslims in Kashmir. By contrast, the intellectual elite in Laos is more pro-China. Sometimes, specific events influence the opinions of the elite. For instance, Singaporeans reacted quite negatively toward the statements of Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi, concerning Singaporean methods of COVID containment,” explains Aleksei Kupriyanov, senior research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. As a whole, Southeast Asian countries believe that India has neither a political will of its own, nor a desire to play a bigger geopolitical role beyond its conflict with Pakistan.
But the more active role that India could play in the Quad (especially if China’s foreign policy energy increases) will lead to an increase in India’s value and importance as America’s tool.
As far as Japan is concerned, its role does not need to grow. A combination of foreign economic policy, regular anti-Chinese actions (including Japan’s attempts to establish relations with Taiwan), local elites’ fear of China and the growth of Japanese pop culture has led to the fact that today, 67% of the local elite favor Japan, and only 16.5% are opposed. Thus, Japan, especially in partnership with India, can be a very effective support system for American interests in Southeast Asia.
The only question that remains is how China will respond to the strengthening of the Quad. It is doubtful that its response will simply be, “Let’s wait out Biden.” The strategy of the current American president, as opposed to Trump’s attacks, are a geopolitical choke hold that will get tighter and tighter around China’s neck as the years go by.
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