The Quad Resurrection (and Beijing’s Response)

The Quad has been awakened after ten years, but China’s perspective is missing in popular debate, just when it seems to be formulating a concerted response.

Much has been written in the recent past about the revival of the Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral as a grouping to check China’s growing influence in the region. However, few have approached the discussion from Beijing’s perspective or assessed its responses.

Quad 2.0 began to take shape after senior officials from the United States, India, Japan and Australia met in Manila in November at the sidelines of the ASEAN and East Asia summits. The “working level” meeting was the first of its kind in over a decade. It ended with each side issuing separate statements. While these were indicative of a commonality of purpose, there remain differences in priorities. For now, the Quad is at best a statement of intent, which needs to be further fleshed out.

Much like the first time that the Quadrilateral Initiative was put into motion, on this occasion too the idea was mooted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Back then, the group held one exploratory meeting in May 2007, which ended with no formal statements or concrete vision for the future. That was followed by joint naval drills in September. The early momentum, however, fizzled away quickly, following Abe’s resignation as prime minister in September 2007 and Australia’s formal withdrawal from the grouping in early 2008 after a change in leadership.

Even in that limited nature, the notion of a growing strategic convergence among democracies at either ends of the Indian and Pacific oceans evoked a sharp response from Beijing, despite clarifications and assurances. From demarches being issued to President Hu Jintao reportedly raising China’s concerns with then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, Beijing’s discomfort was evident.

Unlike in 2007, soon after the 2017 Quad meeting in Manila, China’s foreign ministry said that it welcomed interaction between the relevant parties while expressing hope that the dialogue would not be targeted at a third party and would yield a vision that is “open and inclusive.” That has been the official line that Beijing has maintained towards the grouping as a whole. On the other hand, whatever aggressive posturing there has been has come from the Chinese press.

Changing dynamics

Three broad factors – economic, military and leadership – are responsible for this change in approach.

For starters, China’s GDP has grown from roughly $3.5 trillion in 2007 to around $11.5 trillion in 2016. This has undoubtedly boosted its economic clout, particularly when juxtaposed with the struggles of West following the 2008 financial crisis. At the same time, however, structural limitations of overcapacity and debt-driven growth have come to the fore, resulting in a revised and ambitious geo-economic policy.

Rapid growth has also been a catalyst for military reforms and modernisation. Consequently, there has been a major shift in strategy too. Beijing now seeks to unify strategic defense and operational and tactical offense to protect and pursue broader interests. And finally, the rise of Xi Jinping as the core leader at home and a votary of globalization abroad has permitted strategic stability and created new international opportunities for China.

Beijing understands and acknowledges that deep changes are afoot in the international landscape and balance of power. Therefore, unlike 2007, its response to the 2017 quadrilateral meeting has been cautious and diffused, with an awareness of the faultlines that exist in these democracies. As much as China’s relationships with each of the constituents of the Quad are driven by their own specific or individual dynamics, broader geopolitical factors and Beijing’s assessment of them also underpin its management of these relationships. When viewed in this context, a concerted 5Cs approach – i.e., Cooperate, Confront, Collaborate, Contain and Compete – appears to be emerging.

The 5Cs Approach

Cooperate: The primary rationale for the re-emergence of the Quad as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it is a shift in the “world’s center of gravity…to the heart of the Indo-Pacific.” This, he went on to argue, calls for action to defend the rules-based order. These are, of course, thinly-veiled references to China’s increasing dominance in East and Southeast Asia and its Belt and Road Initiative. Acknowledging the headwinds, Beijing has, over the course of the year, moved to deepen ties with its neighbours, seeking to undermine the Quad’s potential influence in its neighbourhood. Laos and Vietnam were the first foreign visits for Xi after the party congress. There has been forward movement on a South China Sea code of conduct. After a tumultuous year, normalcy is returning to China-South Korea ties. The Sino-Philippines relationship is also witnessing a “positive turnaround.” Clearly, there is a concerted charm offensive underway in the neighbourhood.

Confront: From terse exchanges over an Australian government foreign policy white paper that criticised China’s island building and militarisation in the South China Sea to the Sam Dastyari scandal, which has led to a bitter and public war of words over alleged Chinese meddling in Australia’s internal affairs, Sino-Australian ties have rapidly deteriorated over the past month. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner and top export destination. Canberra is keen to expand trade with countries like India to reduce its dependence on Beijing. However, the dependencies run much deeper than trade in goods and services. Chinese students and tourists are significant sources of revenue for Australia. Added to that, Chinese investors play a key role in the Australian property market. Confrontations along such economic, social and political faultlines would be crucial to note going forward. It must be stated, however, that deepening confrontation has limited merit, given that it will only escalate existing suspicions in Canberra and further alienate Australian society.

Collaborate: In stark contrast to ties with Canberra, Beijing and Tokyo appear to be heading towards an unlikely thaw. Abe met with Xi during the APEC summit in Vietnam, with both sides calling for a “fresh start.” A few weeks later, a large Japanese business delegation visited Beijing, with Premier Li Keqiang talking about getting bilateral ties “back on the right track.” Since then, the Abe government has moved swiftly to encourage Japanese businesses to participate in Belt and Road projects. The two sides have also agreed to set up a hotline system to avert accidents in the East China Sea from escalating into serious confrontations. Abe is also pushing for a resumption of the stalled three-way summit with China and South Korea and is keen to resume reciprocal bilateral visits between Beijing and Tokyo. Amidst all this, it is important to note that Chinese media rhetoric with regard to Japan has generally been measured.

Contain: Speaking at a recent forum, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized that “China and India have far greater shared strategic interests than concrete differences.” Ties between the two sides have been on the mend since the standoff at Doklam earlier in the year. In fact, since the 19th Party Congress, there has been an uptick in diplomatic activity – from the SCOHG meeting in Russia to consultations between delegations of experts and economic policy think tanks and foreign minister-level discussions – with positive momentum being built. Beijing has also sought to cajole New Delhi by offering to address India’s concerns on BRI, despite the lack of consistency in its statements. Moreover, there have been indications that China will now rank the Sino-Indian relationship as a major country relationship, although Wang’s above-mentioned speech did not classify India in that category. However, none of this addresses the key differences – territorial and strategic – between the two sides. Xi’s speech at the party congress hinted at a tougher stance on issues of territorial sovereignty. Frictions over terrorism and India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group remain. Meanwhile, China has continued to deepen its engagement in South Asia, with the Hambantota port deal in Sri Lanka and by eyeing to broker a solution to the Rohingya refugees crisis.

Compete: With China and the US as the emerging and incumbent global powers, strategic competition is an inherent aspect of their relationship. However, Donald Trump’s electoral victory offered Beijing a window of opportunity to seize the narrative and move to the center of global affairs. And it has sought to do so even more aggressively since the 19th Party Congress in three distinct ways. First, while Washington under Donald Trump pitches for America First, Xi has outlined a new global vision, i.e., a community of shared future for mankind. Second, while the Trump administration’s policies undermine America’s standing at multilateral forums and among allies, China has sought to build legitimacy for its political approach. Finally, while Washington now appears transactional and driven by narrow interests, Beijing is eyeing leadership on the values narrative too. None of this, of course, prohibits cooperation in specific areas. Beijing views its relationship with the US as “the most complicated and consequential relationship in the world,” one where it must pursue specific cooperation and strategic competition.

In conclusion, Beijing understands that the idea of the Quad has historically experienced serious hiccups. It is also mindful that each of these countries will have to manage domestic concerns and balance different priorities, given China’s evolving global role. There is a sense that deepening partnership between the Quad members will be a slow and cautious process, with changes in leadership having the potential to impede policy continuity. Therefore, rather than confront the unit as in 2007, Beijing is likely to continue with a diffused strategy with regard to each of Quad’s constituents, while seeking to shore up ties with immediate neighbours.