- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2021

President Biden has promised a full-blown reset of what he and his advisers see as the disastrous foreign policy of the Trump years, but when it comes to U.S. strategy for the Indo-Pacific, the Biden team has spent its first weeks in office borrowing from the last administration’s playbook.

At the heart of the approach has been an embrace of Mr. Trump’s push to elevate the “Quad” linking the U.S., India, Japan and Australia as a go-to economic and military alliance aimed at containing communist China’s regional and global rise.

During a call with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, Mr. Biden specifically pushed the idea that a first-of-its-kind “virtual head of state-level meeting” of the Quad countries be held soon, The Washington Times learned. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is believed to have done the same in a call with his Indian counterpart.

Such a meeting would be the highest-level engagement yet by the four Pacific Rim democracies.

The Quad concept has been around for more than a decade but truly gained traction during the final years of the Trump administration under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. India’s participation would be particularly noteworthy, given that New Delhi, traditionally resistant to joining alliances, is perceived to be the most reluctant about formalizing any strategic arrangement aimed at containing China.

China is the biggest export market for Australia and Japan, leaving both U.S. allies wary of an explicitly anti-Beijing alliance.

The Trump administration first pushed the idea in the National Security Strategy it published in Mr. Trump’s first year in office, when the U.S. was launching an aggressive campaign against Chinese trading practices. China’s growing military prowess and increasingly aggressive foreign policy moves spurred talk in Washington of an “Asian NATO” to confront Beijing the way the Soviet Union was constrained in Europe during the Cold War.

By late last year, the push resulted in clear progress in building up the security identity of the Quad. Elements of the U.S., Indian, Japanese and Australian navies gathered twice in November in the Bay of Bengal for their largest-ever joint military drills, sparking fiercely critical Chinese commentary.

Mr. Biden spoke via telephone this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time since taking office on Jan. 20. Mr. Xi appeared eager to steer the Biden administration away from head-to-head confrontation. He warned in a speech just days after Mr. Biden’s inauguration that continued U.S. efforts to rally other nations against China could spark a “new cold war.”

The Chinese government’s readout of the Biden-Xi phone call was also noticeably more restrained and positive than was the summary given by the White House.

Substance and style

The Biden administration has begun a reversal of Trump-era foreign policy moves in other areas of the world, most notably the Middle East. The new president has made early moves to pull back from what had been an increasingly close U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and has signaled an interest in thawing relations with Iran.

But analysts say the administration is largely tracking the hard-line substance, if not the confrontational style, that Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo charted over the past four years with China. The approach also benefits from rising bipartisan distrust of China on Capitol Hill and in popular U.S. opinion polls.

“The Trump administration took that step, and it’s not one this new administration is walking away from,” said Daniel S. Markey, a former State Department official now at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “I believe that a strategic organizing principle of the Biden administration overseas will be this long-term competition with China.”

The Biden approach will be “more diplomatic” and likely less pugnacious rhetorically, Mr. Markey said in an interview, although he noted that the new administration has embraced a sharp tone on Beijing’s aggression toward Hong Kong and treatment of Uighur Muslims. The Trump administration, in its final days, officially characterized the Chinese treatment of Uighurs as a policy of genocide.

The Biden administration’s policy toward Asia as a whole has also been similar, said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center. “For all we hear about how the Biden administration is going to do a complete [180] on foreign policy,” Mr. Kugelman said in an interview, “there’s going to be a fair amount of continuity on policy toward Asia.

“The style of Biden’s process will be very different in that there will be greater focus on diplomacy and multilateralism,” he said. “But it makes perfect sense that there would be continuity in the Asia policy, because the main driver of the policy is concern about China, and I think that concern is a bipartisan matter in the sense that … whichever party controls the White House is going to feel similarly about the need to work with allies and partners in the region to try and counterbalance China.”

Mr. Kugelman added that while there has been increased energy around the idea of the Quad in recent years, he thinks it a stretch to portray it as growing into an “Asian NATO” anytime soon.

Chinese strategists routinely dismiss the idea that the Quad can evolve into a “mini-NATO” aimed at containing Beijing, though they also track U.S. diplomatic efforts almost obsessively.

“In Asia, an ‘Asian NATO’ will not emerge until the day when China’s relations with all other major countries deteriorate,” the Chinese state-controlled Global Times said in an editorial this week. “China’s current foreign policy determines that it will not be the enemy of all Asian countries.”

‘Serious competitor’

In his first major speech on foreign policy as president, Mr. Biden last week described China as America’s “most serious competitor” and stressed that “we’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; [and] push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property and global governance.”

At the same time, he emphasized the need to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.” He made no reference to the Quad or the Trump administration’s attempt to promote it.

However, Mr. Biden’s top advisers on foreign policy have spent the past three weeks underscoring the importance of the Quad and, at times, even openly recognizing the former administration’s success at promoting it with U.S. allies.

During an online forum discussion on Jan. 29, newly appointed National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan described the Quad as “one very positive thing we will be building on.”

“I think we really want to carry forward and build on that format, that mechanism which we see as a fundamental foundation upon which to build substantial American policy in the Indo-Pacific region,” Mr. Sullivan said at the forum, hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters this week that “the Quad is a key example of the United States and our closest partners, including, in this case, India, pulling together for the good of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

“We view the Quad as having essential momentum and important potential, and that’s why we’re going to build on it by deepening cooperation on areas of traditional focus — and that includes maritime security — while also working closely with Quad partners to confront some of the defining issues of our time,” Mr. Price said Tuesday.

When asked whether a Quad summit is in the works, Mr. Price said, “We don’t have anything to announce at this time.”

Mr. Markey said this week that the real-world impact and future of the Quad alliance is a work in progress.

“As ambitious as everybody might be for the Quad, there’s still not much there there,” he said. “The challenge for the Biden administration is to try and fill it out. If the Trump administration convinced everyone, including the Indians, that this is something worth building on, what is now going to be built? That’s the hard part, and that’s where we are now.”

Major questions loom over economic aspects of the Quad and whether the four countries have a common interest to counterbalance China’s growing economic clout and push for global influence via its Belt and Road initiative to fund infrastructure projects in Asia, Europe, Africa and even South America.

Despite such uncertainties, Felix K. Chang at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute said recent years have seen political leadership in all of the Quad countries “shift their views on China, due to its more aggressive behavior in the East China Sea toward Japan, its economic intimidation of Australia, and its willingness to escalate border tensions with India.”

China has made it easier for ‘the Quad’ to gel,” said Mr. Chang, although he added the grouping “still faces many challenges before it can be considered solid.”

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