Quadruple trouble for China? Why Washington’s hopes of creating an anti-Beijing NATO-style bloc in the region is a pipe dream
Mike Pompeo wants to turn the “Quad” – an informal coalition of Australia, India, Japan, and the US – into a military alliance to counter Beijing. But it’s not going to happen, because of China’s economic clout.
In China, the term ‘Gang of Four’ is used to refer to an infamous clique who advocated Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution – the mass uprising among young people that, from 1966 to 1976, transformed the country into chaos. Today, however, it may have a different meaning for Beijing.
During his visit to Tokyo, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue forum, which he maintains is designed to counter China. He hoped the Quad would “counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us,” and denounced what he described as the “CCP’s exploitation, corruption and coercion.”
“Once we’ve institutionalized what we’re doing – the four of us together – we can begin to build out a true security framework,” he said, adding that other countries could become a part of the fabric at the “appropriate time.”
Although all four countries participating are known for their anti-China sentiment right now, there’s a fat chance of the Quad evolving into a formal alliance. As the saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but the more pertinent question here might be, “What do you want to achieve regarding your enemy?” It’s why the Quad will remain simply a gathering rather than any kind of grand NATO-style coalition. The fact the other participants do not even want to agree that it’s “anti-China” should be the first warning sign that Pompeo’s pompous rhetoric won’t wash.
Excluding the US, each member of the Quad has its respective grievances and antagonisms concerning China, but it also has national interests in sustaining some form of stability with Beijing that prevents it from indulging in the militant, Cold War-style antagonism Pompeo is pushing.
Let’s start with India. We know its relations with Beijing are sour at present. The impact of its border dispute with Beijing and the weaponization of nationalism by Modi has led to a fierce anti-China backlash that has resulted in a sweeping ban on Chinese apps, including TikTok, and curbs on investment in the country.
Many say India’s become increasingly pro-America as it’s sought to rival Beijing, and, of course, it has enhanced its security ties with the other two Quad members as well. But a formal alliance? No chance.
India’s foreign policy is, at its heart, independent. New Delhi may feel it has self-interested reasons to confront China, but this is about “India first” and not the chauvinistic “the West is winning” fanaticism of Pompeo. Modi’s anti-Beijing push is calculated, and driven by an ambition to transform India itself into a great power. He’s pushed protectionism aggressively in an attempt to develop the Indian market, has looked to strengthen manufacturing, and has promoted the mindset that China is a “peer competitor.”
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Yet at the same time, India still needs China, too. The two are not equal on economic terms. Right in the middle of the border skirmish, China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank lent India $750 million to help it fight Covid-19 – India’s relying on Chinese aid while being antagonistic, and there are limits to how far China will be pushed before it pushes back in return.
But what of the others? Japan might be described as a ‘frenemy’ to China. It’s a solid US ally, but, at the same time, it’s sitting on China’s doorstep, and to sign up to unrestrained American antagonism against Beijing would be hugely detrimental to it. As neighbors, they have to work together and China is Japan’s largest export market.
As a result, Tokyo pursues caution in its foreign policy. It doesn’t want to be militarily dominated by China, to lose the upper hand in territorial disputes, nor to have its sovereignty infringed, but it knows full well an explicit anti-China alliance and banging the Cold War drum would be a step too far. Yes, it supports Washington, but it exercises moderation in that regard.
And, finally, what about Australia? Arguably, as a Five Eyes member (that is a partner in an intelligence alliance with Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US) and ‘Anglosphere’ state, it’s the most willing and obedient in following America’s security and anti-China agenda, as well as being its most long-term and strident Pacific ally. Of all the other three players in the Quad, Australia has been by far the most vocal about China. But even then, Canberra recognizes it has limits to what it can do, given it relies overwhelmingly on Beijing as an export market for the output of its mining industries. What’s worse is that, unlike the others, China has shown more willingness to punish Australia for its antagonism than the other Quad players, putting curbs on barley and wine exports. Therefore, any escalation of the Quad to an alliance status would undoubtedly prove more costly for Canberra than any of the others.
In short, Pompeo’s vision represents a pipe dream. These countries have some common interests and perhaps a common enemy, but they have other interests in common that mean they won’t take this plan further. The US views China as a zero-sum ideological adversary, but the others view it as something that’s threatening but nonetheless important to their future security.
They’ll cooperate with the Quad as a hedge against Beijing, but are they interested in escalating this into a tense Cold War confrontation, as Washington wants? The answer is no, and that’s why, despite Pompeo’s hyperbole, they couldn’t even commit to a joint group statement.
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