Biden administration officials say they are not pushing to add other countries to the strategic U.S.-India-Japan-Australia “Quad” group but stress that the future of American policy in the Indo-Pacific region hinges on the deepening alignment among the four powerful democracies to counter authoritarian China’s increasingly aggressive rise on the world stage.
“The Quad is definitely going to be a central focus of overall U.S. policy in the Indo-Pacific moving forward,” one senior administration official involved in the initiative told The Washington Times. The official said the White House is laying the groundwork for a first-of-its-kind, in-person “leader level” summit of Quad countries this year.
The comments coincide with mounting Chinese condemnation of the Quad amid speculation that the U.S. is seeking to establish an informal “Quad-plus” paradigm to generate strategic buy-in from smaller nations on China’s periphery, including South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and perhaps Vietnam.
Analysts say those and other nations are “in play” in the growing power competition between the U.S. and China. Several are already beholden to Beijing because of their dependence on Chinese trade. They must acquiesce when China orders them to stay silent about human rights abuses and military muscle-flexing.
Discussion about what a Quad-plus might look like has gained steam since the Biden administration signaled its intent to build on what began as a major strategic push by the Trump administration to link up with the Indo-Pacific’s most powerful democracies to counter China.
Hawkish foreign policy experts described the Trump-era initiative as the beginning of an “Asian NATO.”
Chinese officials have bristled at the notion. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the Trump administration of using the Quad “to trumpet the Cold War mentality and to stir up confrontation” aimed at maintaining the “dominance and hegemonic system of the United States,” the South China Morning Post reported.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said upon Mr. Biden’s arrival at the White House in January that U.S. efforts to rally the world against China risk a “new cold war.” Many in Washington believe such a conflict is already underway.
In interviews with The Times, two senior Biden administration officials steered clear of such terminology.
The officials were less than eager to be quoted on the record as framing the Quad as an initiative aimed specifically at containing China. However, they made clear on the condition of anonymity that establishing a pro-democracy security and legal bedrock for Indo-Pacific nations to lean on, even while they engage in heavy trade with China, is precisely what Mr. Biden hopes to achieve.
Sources close to the administration say the consensus inside the White House, even among the socialist-leaning left flank of Mr. Biden’s advisers, is that communist China must be countered. The advisers say engaging the Quad is the best way to give nations in the region somewhere to turn in the face of Beijing’s mounting economic and geopolitical power.
“The Biden administration has worked very hard to continue forward with and even deepen the momentum that was created for the Quad grouping during the Trump administration,” said Jacob Stokes, who served as a special adviser to Mr. Biden for Asia policy when Mr. Biden was vice president in the Obama administration.
“The Biden administration is so far being very intentional about trying to generate a situation in which future Quad activities and initiatives, involving the core nations — the U.S., Japan, Australia and India — can be plugged into by other countries in the region and around the world,” said Mr. Stokes, now at the Center for a New American Security. “The goal of this approach would be to provide a space for other countries to plug into given initiatives pretty seamlessly, whether it’s an initiative on vaccines, technology standards, quality infrastructure or even freedom of navigation and security issues.”
Andrew Scobell at the U.S. Institute of Peace agrees.
“The ball is now in the Biden administration’s court with regard to the Quad,” he said. “If the Biden administration is able to effectively build on what the Trump administration was beginning to do with this forum, then the Quad could become a more significant vehicle for a wide range of initiatives, including coordination among like-minded nations on efforts to counter China.”
Still, Mr. Scobell cautioned against “getting ahead of ourselves.”
“It’s fine to have other countries engage, but why not solidify and strengthen the basics of the Quad first before talking about Quad enlargement?” he said. “If the Quad is going to be sustained, it should be seen to have some successes or some accomplishments, whether agreements on economic cooperation or security cooperation. Such successes would underscore the value of the organization or the dialogue.
“Speaking of modest but notable successes, the optics of having an in-person meeting later this year would be a win for all involved,” Mr. Scobell said.
One senior administration official told The Times that “there are currently no plans to expand the Quad by adding additional countries.” Still, Mr. Biden’s top Asia policy adviser has openly sought to encourage other nations to “engage” with the Quad.
“This is not a fancy club,” Kurt Campbell, National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, told an online event hosted by Stanford University last month. “If there are other countries that believe that they’d like to engage and work with us, the door will be open as we go forward.”
At a virtual leader-level Quad summit in March, Mr. Biden and his counterparts pledged to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region in the face of increasingly brazen challenges from China. They also vowed to coordinate closely on COVID-19 vaccine and climate initiatives.
The upcoming in-person summit is slated to focus on pro-transparency infrastructure initiatives that could counter the billions of dollars China is pumping into economies worldwide through its Belt and Road system. U.S. officials describe Belt and Road as an opaque system with predatory loans.
Chinese resistance is likely to be fierce. Ahead of the March summit, Beijing signaled that it wouldn’t hesitate to exert economic pressure on core Quad members if they appeared to be eagerly rallying against China.
India, Australia and Japan all rely heavily on China for trade. China is ranked as the No. 1 trading partner for Australia and Japan and No. 2, behind the U.S., for India. In reference to the Quad’s expanding activities, China’s Communist Party-aligned Global Times ran a headline in February warning that “China can retaliate economically if red line crossed.”
It remains to be seen what that “red line” might be. The Quad countries have engaged in increasingly sophisticated joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean. China has not responded directly but has ramped up its military aggression in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.
The Quad could be integrated with existing regional security and economic institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Still, China has heavy economic influence over a widening slate of regional institutions, including ASEAN, which is notorious for being hampered by bureaucracy.
Some argue that Quad-ASEAN integration would only enhance Beijing’s ability to undermine the Quad as a democracy-based counterweight to China’s expanding regional power.
Mr. Stokes told The Times that the Biden administration believes ASEAN and other regional institutions will continue to be important but that the Quad has a chance to emerge unencumbered by bureaucratic and geopolitical constraints.
Of particular concern is that China uses economic pressure and leverage to persuade groups such as ASEAN to steer clear of collective policies that do not align with Beijing’s strategic initiatives. A goal of the Quad, he said, should be to create a platform less vulnerable to such pressure.
At the same time, Mr. Stokes said, the Biden administration knows “potential candidates for any ‘Quad-plus’ arrangement are all going to have political, strategic or economic obstacles to joining.”
“The administration does not want to be seen as pressuring these countries,” he said, “[but] does want to provide the foundation for a democracy and transparency-focused platform that can be relied upon in the future for dialogue among like-minded nations on a range of pressing issues.
“[The] Quad is not intended to be an Asian NATO, and it won’t be,” Mr. Stokes added. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t strengthen political and security deterrence toward China by inviting additional, like-minded countries to participate in a range of initiatives, even if they are not formal members.”
Mr. Scobell, meanwhile, said Beijing is eager to promote a narrative that the U.S. and other democracies are messy and divisive to the point of being unreliable as world leaders. He told The Times that the Quad counters that narrative because it “undergirds the idea that the world’s democracies could actually be aligned around strategic initiatives that transcend whatever domestic political fights those democracies may be going through at a particular moment.”
Mr. Scobell also said the Quad is about more than U.S.-Chinese competition.
“Having climate change as a high-profile issue that the Quad is a way to signal to China that this is not all about you,” he said. “That is an important message to send in order to make it clear to Beijing that the Quad and a future ‘Quad-plus’ is not only about countering China; it’s also about larger issues that democracies care about and are willing to work together to address.”