- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2021

President Biden is preparing to host the first-ever in-person summit of leaders from the so-called Quad countries — the U.S., India, Japan and Australia — in a sign of growing momentum behind what began as a Trump-era push to rally Asia’s most powerful democracies into a more formal grouping to confront and contain communist China.

The Sept. 24 White House summit dovetails with this week’s announcement of a U.S.-Australian-U.K. security pact that many see as a parallel effort to counter China. The administration’s embrace of the pact and promotion of the Quad underscores what analysts say is an accelerating U.S. shift in focus toward the Indo-Pacific region after decades of war and focus on terrorist groups in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Mr. Biden has essentially picked up where Trump administration officials left off by embracing the Quad as a central vehicle for the strategic shift, triggering increasingly heated responses from Beijing. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said this week that the Quad is “doomed to fail” because its members are united by little more than the challenge they face from Beijing.

Regional experts, however, say the U.S., Japanese, Indian and Australian strategic alignment is openly and rapidly expanding in response to years of Chinese aggression against democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as Beijing‘s growing economic and military clout.

“This kind of cooperation among the Quad leaders, with a meeting at the White House, broadcasts clearly to China that it has a major challenge on its hands,” said Patrick M. Cronin, the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

Mr. Cronin said in an interview that he believes Chinese President Xi Jinping has encouraged pushback by embracing an offensive foreign policy.

“On top of all of Xi’s other problems, including those he’s facing at home with the COVID-19 pandemic, he has now galvanized four leading maritime democracies to spearhead a political, economic and military alignment that can stand up to China‘s provocations and coercion,” Mr. Cronin said.

“The fear that Taiwan could get whipsawed by China and that other regional actors, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, could be bullied by China has the Quad leaders wanting to help,” he said. “They want to do something about it to help insulate Southeast Asia from China’s bullying and coercion.

“The point here,” he said, “is that perception of the ‘China threat’ has dramatically risen in the eyes of New Delhi, Tokyo, Canberra and Washington in recent years.”

China has responded with increasingly heated rhetoric since August 2020 when Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun floated the idea that an informal U.S., Japanese, Australian and Indian defense alignment could be the core of a NATO-style alliance in Asia.

Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have downplayed the notion, saying the Quad has no momentum. They also have accused the U.S. of trying to militarize the region and foment a confrontation with Beijing.

Chinese analysts say the Quad countries have different agendas and challenges regarding China. One analyst compared the Quad grouping to “four patients with different illnesses but stay in the same hospital ward.” Skeptics also note that China is the single biggest import and export market for Australia and Japan and the biggest importer for U.S. and Indian markets.

Gaining momentum

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will be coming to the U.S. for the U.N. General Assembly session next week, but the Quad meeting is likely to generate its own wave of international attention.

The grouping was initiated in 2007 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, although it struggled to gain major momentum as the U.S. and other powers still sought to engage with a rising China. Regional strategists say the landscape has been far more promising since the Trump administration put its weight behind the idea.

The Biden administration hosted the first virtual meeting of the Quad leaders in March. After a round of joint military exercises among the Quad nations, the meeting produced a joint statement in which the leaders vowed to coordinate closely on COVID-19 vaccine and climate initiatives.

They also pledged greater collaboration on “maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas.” The language references frustration among many Asian nations that view China‘s aggressive sovereignty claims and construction of military bases on artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea as violations of international law.

Because most countries in the region depend heavily on China for trade, few have been willing to fully break with Beijing.

The March meeting spurred speculation that Washington may seek to establish an informal “Quad-plus” to include smaller nations on China’s periphery, including South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and perhaps Vietnam.

A senior administration official told The Times that “there are currently no plans to expand the Quad by adding additional countries,” but Mr. Biden’s top Asia policy adviser has openly sought to encourage others to “engage” with the grouping.

“This is not a fancy club,” Kurt Campbell, National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, told an online event hosted by Stanford University in May. “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.”

Chinese officials appear to be fuming at the notion. “China can retaliate economically if red line crossed,” a headline in the Chinese Communist Party-aligned Global Times warned ahead of the March meeting.

This time, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said any anti-China grouping in the region is “doomed to fail.”

“Forming closed and exclusive ‘cliques’ targeting other countries runs counter to the trend of the times and deviates from the expectation of regional countries,” Mr. Zhao told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday when asked about the upcoming summit at the White House.

“It thus wins no support and is doomed to fail,” he said, and “relevant countries should discard the outdated zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception.”

China is not only a major engine of economic growth in the Asia-Pacific but also a staunch defender of regional peace and stability,” Mr. Zhao said.

Despite promoting the Quad, Biden administration officials have sought to avoid provocative rhetoric in public over the initiative. A White House statement announcing the summit of Quad leaders made no mention of China.

“Hosting the leaders of the Quad demonstrates the Biden-Harris Administration’s priority of engaging in the Indo-Pacific, including through new multilateral configurations to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” the statement said. “The Quad leaders will be focused on deepening our ties and advancing practical cooperation on areas such as combatting COVID-19, addressing the climate crisis, partnering on emerging technologies and cyberspace, and promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Mr. Cronin, meanwhile, said he believes China‘s expanding military activity near Taiwan — the island democracy where the communist government in Beijing has long claimed sovereignty — is likely also to be on the agenda.

“I think we’re going to see this dimension about peace and security in the Taiwan Strait, maritime security and defense technology cooperation, both through joint exercises and through research and development projects,” he said. “It’s just further augmentation of the defense dimension of the relationship.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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