Democratic values have become the ideological foundation of the Quad. This is the thing perhaps feared by China the most.
The first ever highest level Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) Summit held on 12 March 2021, followed by a joint statement that calls for a “free, open, inclusive, healthy” Indo-Pacific region “anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion”, addressing “shared challenges, including in cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief as well as maritime domains,” promoting a “free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond” has undoubtedly upset China. This can be noticed in the statements emanating from the Chinese strategic community, media and politicians alike. Setting up a vaccine expert working group, working group for critical and emerging technology, and a climate working group were some of the tangible results, besides the institutionalisation of the dialogue mechanism at the highest level. How has China reacted to the Quad, the summits and how does it wish to mitigate the challenges posed by it? Let’s examine some of the views aired by the Chinese scholarship on the Quad.
First, Quad 2.0 has gained traction and is more resilient than Quad 1.0. The origin of the Quad could be traced back to cooperation between the US, Japan, India and Australia in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The cooperation fructified in the first ever security dialogue in 2007; this was also the year when the then Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe talked about the “confluence of two oceans” (Indian and Pacific Ocean) while addressing Indian Parliament. Five years later, he propounded the idea of “Asia’s democratic security diamond”. Abe argued, “I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific. I am prepared to invest, to the greatest possible extent, Japan’s capabilities in this security diamond.” Most Chinese scholars, including Chen Qinghong, a researcher at China’s Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), argue that the Quad 1.0 “collapsed within a year of its establishment” but since the first meeting of senior officials of the Quad in November 2017, it has gained traction. The flurry of activities such as Quad’s upgradation to the foreign minister level dialogue on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in 2019; the US think Tank, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) releasing a report on the Quad in March 2020; the bilateral, trilateral and “2+2” dialogue mechanisms between the Quad members; and the first virtual summit of the Quad leaders on 12 March has been held responsible for the new version named as Quad 2.0 by Chinese scholars.
Two, Quad 2.0 is aimed at containing and diluting China’s influence in the region. Even if the first ever Joint Statement (2021) refrains from naming China, but the Chinese strategic community, especially since 2017, has been vocal in pronouncing the Quad as anti-China, with the aim to “contain the rise of China”. Besides the above-mentioned mechanisms between the Quad countries, they are quick to point to the security cooperation between the Quad nations. Researchers Chen Qinghong of the CICIR and Zhang Jie of the Institute of Asia-Pacific and Global Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences refer to the first ever military exercises between the Indian and Japanese air and ground forces in Agra (2018) and Mizoram (2019) respectively, Malabar naval exercise, and signing of a series of logistic support agreements among the Quad as security pacts aimed at “diluting China’s influence” in the region.
Since Quad 2.0 is more resilient than 1.0, therefore, its future development is bound to have a significant impact on the development and evolution of regional security architecture, argues Chen Qinghong of the CICIR. According to Liu A’ming, a researcher at the Institute of International Studies, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, the “upgraded version of Quad has a clearer goal, which is to confront China. This is clearly different from the Quad of ten years ago”. The “Quad signals unity among the four in their foreign policy approaches, which in turn strengthens the leadership of the United States”. In fact, “no country in Asia is willing to confront China strategically. They are all tempted and coerced by the United States” according to an op-ed titled “The United States can’t afford to build and even pull the cart of ‘Mini Asian NATO’!” by Huanqiu Shibao on 14 March. According to the op-ed, “the United States has lost its way, and its only remaining sense of strategic direction is how to destroy China”.
Three, “democratic values” have become the ideological foundation of the Quad. This is the thing perhaps feared by China the most, as it may give rise to an ideological cold war as was witnessed between the US and the Soviet Union. The Trump administration did try to differentiate between the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people during the last leg of his regime, and it appears that the Joe Biden administration is continuing with the same policy. According to Liu A’ming, ideology wasn’t at the centre of the debate during Quad 1.0, but has taken precedence in Quad 2.0. China is apprehensive that the “alliance of democracies” will be expanded further. According to Chen Qinghong, no doubt the Quad is “not going to be an exclusive club” but the expansion will be based on “common values and interests”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Shangri-La statement (2018) that “We choose the side of principles and values, of peace and progress, not one side of a divide or the other” has been interpreted by the scholar in this context. He says that there is a consensus on this in the Quad, but it remains to be seen whether expansion will change the Quad from four to five or six or the Quad+ approach. On the other hand, ASEAN+3+3 version has also been put forth to diminish China’s “charm offensive” and “dilute its influence in Southeast Asia”. According to Chinese scholars, when China proposed ASEAN+3 to the East Asia Summit, Japan and other countries actively promoted inclusion of Australia, New Zealand and India to join the East Asia Summit.
Four, the Quad is an inalienable part of the US “Indo-Pacific Strategy”. Chinese scholars argue that the range of issues under discussion among the Quad countries has expanded into various domains. It is not only limited to the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), North Korean nuclear issue and the South China Sea, as has been the case during its earlier version, but also include “the importance of good governance in strengthening the rule-based order”; promotion of “openness, transparency, and the development of high-quality infrastructure based on international standards”, and coordination with other regional forums such as ASEAN, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) etc. A mention is made of some cooperation in infrastructure projects in the “Indo-Pacific” region initiated by the Quad. For example, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the United States have jointly announced the construction of a power grid in Papua New Guinea; at the Pacific Business Forum in Bangkok (2019), Japan, Australia and the US launched the “Blue Dot Network” that will serve as a global evaluation and certification system for roads, ports and bridges, with the focus on the Indo-Pacific region. This is certainly being looked at as a counter to President Xi Jinping’s project of the century, the “Belt and Road Initiative” that has been aggressively opposed by India owing to China’s insensitivity to India’s territorial concerns in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
Five, China’s burgeoning economic and military muscle has alarmed the US and its allies. Chinese scholars assert that not only China didn’t become a “western style democracy” but has increasingly defended its maritime rights and sovereignty. Some of the “decisive actions,” according to researcher Chen of the CICIR, include a series of countermeasures against Japan’s “nationalisation” of Senkaku in 2012; imposition of Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in 2013, reclamation of islands and reefs in Spratly in 2014, and thwarting of India’s “infringement in the Doklam” in 2017. They have argued that Doklam was instrumental in India’s rethinking on the Quad, if that is the case then, I believe Galwan could be regarded as instrumental in India lodging both the Quad and Indo-Pacific Strategy in its military and foreign policy matrix. Conversely, they posit that the United States is aware of the fact that it is “difficult to contain China with its own strength” therefore, deliberately draws on the strength of its allies and partners.
Six, formation of an “Asian NATO” will be an uphill task, with India the weakest link. Although there are academicians in China who believe that Quad will vanish soon, for they argue that China is the largest trading partner of all the four Quad nations. Zhou Bo of the Centre for International Security and Strategy (CISS), Tsinghua University, aired such views in a recent debate on the Central Global Television Network (CGTN) of China. Moreover, since the threat perceptions are different, formation of an “Asian version of NATO” is by no means an easy task, argues Zhang Jie. These assumptions resonate Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi pronouncing Quad as a “headline grabbing” idea that will “dissipate like sea foam” during a press briefing on the “Two Sessions” in March 2018. Most of the Chinese scholars deem India as the “weakest link” in the Quad. India’s intervention in the South China Sea and the East China Sea is mainly limited to the level of diplomacy and public opinion, according to Zhang Jie. In fact, the scholar says that this applies to all the Quad members at this stage, hence the possibility of forming a substantive alliance in the short term is unlikely. However, they also agree that “to some extent, the breadth and depth of Quad’s development depends on India’s attitude” and that Quad will be instrumental in enhancing India’s military strength.
Finally, as a way out, the Chinese are banking on their strong trade ties with the ASEAN, and hope that the grouping will not accommodate the Quad. China hopes that the ASEAN will seek a balance between the economic benefits from China and the security provided by the United States. Therefore, “maintaining economic influence and limiting conflicts within a controllable range” has been stated as one of the goals of China’s diplomacy. Zhang Jie recommends that China must manage well strategic competition with the US, avoid challenging the existing interest structure at global level excessively, circumvent the balancing tendencies of small and medium-sized countries at the regional level, and avoid the formation of military and economic bloc confrontation in the region. As for India and Japan, China believes it should be able to strengthen normal relations with both countries, for strategic confrontation with China is considered as “an unbearable burden” for both of them.
B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.