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Can Quad be Effective against Incremental Encroachment of China in Indo-Pacific Region?

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The ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’ of China exhibited in South China Sea (SCS) is a serious concern not only to the countries directly affected by losing their influence  over overlapping EEZ, but also to rest of the world as China can exert illegitimate monopoly over SCS global Sea Lane of Communication (SLOC).  The countries directly affected do not have adequate muscle power to stand up to China; hence will have no choice but to succumb to one sided arrangement like China driven “Code of Conduct” (COC).  Chinese adventurism therefore needs to be checked by other prominent maritime powers in global interest.The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) which groups Australia, India, Japan, and the United States isoften being looked at as a potential instrument to check further adventurism of china in Indo-Pacific, however it currently does not have requisite teeth and traction.  The fact that China could convert features into military base in SCS despite presence of US Navy indicates that it does require global condemnation and effort of higher order to ensure that SCS does not become ‘China’s Lake’.  Although Quad may not have requisite teeth as of now, but there is no other alternative but to have potential arrangement of this kind between likeminded maritime powers having common strategic interests in Indo-Pacific Region in relation to freedom of navigation (FON), flights and rule-based order.

Differing Perceptions regarding Role of Quad

The Quad has repeatedly been subject of varying perceptions regarding its role, viability and prospects. Quad by nomenclature is a security dialogue forum and not a military alliance; hence the expectations from Quad have to be appropriately restricted for the time being.  Media often traces the Quad back to the expanded Malabar Naval Exercise in September 2007, that originated from the U.S.-India bilateral relationship, wherein ships of all four Quad countries participated for the first time, which was held off the Japanese island of Okinawa. It appeared to be a military and maritime arrangement revolving exclusively around four democracies. The initial impetus/usefulness of Quad it in fact emerged following the devastating tsunami in Indian Ocean back in 2004 as the so-called Tsunami Core Group, which came together to fashion a credible Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) response to it. This role for Quad, along with anti-piracy was noticed and counted, as such a role was much easier to sell to the world community including the stakeholders, which were excluded in the grouping.

Many give the credit of the idea of Quad to Prime Minister Abe who mooted his proposal within the framework of the “confluence of the two seas”, joining the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. This would enable a “broader Asia” to emerge, which would encompass the Pacific, where Japan felt that partnership with the US and Australia would be integrated into its ambit besides Japan – India strategic partnership. The four democratic countries of the Quad project themselves to be committed to an open and transparent network which “will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely”. Quad is therefore yet to acknowledge that it has a role to check the adventurism of China in Indo-Pacific region and could ever operate jointly as a military force for it. In fact, Quad has chosen to be diplomatically correct to say that it is not directed towards any particular country.

Problems/Divergences

To take the dialogue forward, the Quad needs to urgently converge existing divergences regarding their individual definitions of the Indo-Pacific. While Indian and to some extent Japanese focus would be to include western Indian Ocean touching Africa and Gulf countries along with the Eastern Indian Ocean, Northern and Eastern Pacific, which perhaps other members of Quad would see as the main focus of attention.

 All Quad members have different threat perceptions in the Indo-Pacific. This impacts their prioritization in dealing with challenges in Indo-pacific as well as the areas of focus. It also includes their approach towards dealing with flash points like SCS or upholding the freedom of navigation along the sea and air routes of communication, connectivity and rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific. An important issue for effective maritime security cooperation amongst the navies of Quad is while three of the navies (Australia, US and Japan) operate within NATO military alliance framework, India is not part of any military alliance, although a strategic partner of two of them. The trilateral dialogue between the three NATO allies is continuing since 2002 without India. India is the only country amongst Quad members which has unsettled land border with China; hence will have a different approach in dealing with China. This does create some apprehension in mind of the rest three partners as China -India relations keep fluctuating between tension and harmony with incidents like Doklam, Wuhan and reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir. This brings up the question of military decision-making by the Quad as a group.

The centrality of ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific has been emphasized by the Quad, hence their inclusion into it is another debatable issue, due to Chinese influence over them. There are differences within ASEAN in response to Chinese claim over nine dash line in SCS (based on its unilateral interpretation of history), between the countries which have overlapping EEZ and the ones not facing such problem. Generally, some of the affected ASEAN countries have occasionally raised a feeble voice against Chinese aggression (Philippines, Vietnam), expecting world powers to check Chinese adventurism, without themselves standing up against the Chinese might. They have generally tried to get the best of US and China without being seen to be taking sides. This has emboldened China to continue incremental encroachment in SCS and the region up to a point that it has become a global concern. China has also tried its best to deal with each of the country in this region on bilateral terms and lure/influence it through ‘Chequebook/Purse/Infrastructure diplomacy’.

Strengthening/Upgradation of Quad

It is being increasingly realized that equal participation of all four Quad countries in maritime security cooperation is crucial for a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific region’. Between 2007 to 2017, meetings of Quad officials were extremely limited, that too at Joint Secretary/equivalent level. 2017 onwards it had four meetings, the last one being at Foreign Minister level, indicates the incremental seriousness of the countries involved in such engagement. Increasing convergence in focus and roles is also being noticed. In last meeting hosted by US earlier this year, besides ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ to ensure freedom of navigation; maritime security cooperation; connectivity; good governance; countering terrorism and proliferation; HADR; promoting a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific; and cyber security were some common areas of interest. Concerns like use of global commons in international water and nuclear adventurism of North Korea were also subjects of discussion. Consensus on centrality of ASEAN was also a sign of convergence.

The common focus of Quad to implement its idea of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific on a “rules-based” legal framework to secure freedom of navigation in the global SLOC in Indo-Pacific needs some introspection and strengthening. Three members of Quad namely Australia, India and Japan, have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOSIII), however US is yet to ratify the same. This ratification will be necessary to have a moral high ground to implement the same. It is still not sure that any legal framework can compel China to accept it in SCS in future, as it had rejected the PCA’s decision earlier. This is a serious global concern because China continues to make/improve infrastructure in SCS, with a view to convert features/atolls into military bases, expect others to accept them as islands and apply ‘Baseline principle’ under UNCLOS-III to claim its 200 nautical miles of EEZ to conveniently convert SCS into ‘Chinese lake’ over a period of time. If it is not resented by global community, it may lead to some restrictions like ADIZ on SCS which is a global SLOC.

Considering the prevailing international strategic scenario, China is reasonably confident that US or any other country will not use military force to dismantle their infrastructure made in SCS. It is also increasing its naval capability as part of its comprehensive national power (CNP)to make best use of inaction by other countries in Indo-Pacific. In this context it is necessary that Quad strengthens itself beyond Malabar exercises and forum for dialogue and gets some teeth in the form of maritime capacity building of its members, further improvement of interoperability and dominate choke points sensitive to China. Chinese adventurism of recent intrusion like Vanguard episode in Vietnam waters need to be taken seriously.

Quad members must continue freedom of navigation exercises and military posturing in Indo-Pacific as China continues to do so. Global community must continue to condemn Chinese encroachment in SCS and conversion of features into bases. These features should never be recognized as islands in consonance with PCA decision. If the strategic situation worsens there may be a need to position ‘UN Maritime Military Observers Group’ in future, which must be thought of, as prevention of accidental triggering of conflict is possible in a region having high density of combat ship on FON missions. Some of the countries whose EEZ is being compromised by Nine dash line claims must start speaking for themselves before expecting other powers to help them. The countries who have their SLOC passing through Indo-pacific should also be consulted in finalization of China driven Code of Conduct (CoC)as they also have stakes in SCS. Any action by any country to restrict freedom of navigation/flight or violation of rule of law must be challenged in UN Security Council. Support of other navies like France for free and open Indo-Pacific is  encouraging step in this direction. Quad in its present form may not be effective enough to check Chinese adventurism, but it certainly has potential to become one of the effective instruments to do so, provided the affected countries and the global community also plays its role against common concerns.

The author is a veteran Infantry General with 40 years experience in international fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst; he is currently the Chief Instructor of USI of India, the oldest Indian Think-tank in India.

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East Asia

The Taliban seek cooperation with China?

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image source: chinamission.be

How to deal with Afghanistan after the removal of US forces has become a subject that many countries are grappling with. And because Afghanistan and China are linked through Xinjiang, the Afghan Taliban aspire to cooperate with China. According to sources, on July 28, Baradar, the head of the Taliban’s Political Committee, visited China and met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

During the meetings, Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a personal plea to the Taliban in Afghanistan, expecting that the Taliban would draw a line with terrorist organizations like the East Iraqi Movement and actively battle them, removing barriers to regional growth and cooperation. Since the United States made it apparent that it intends to withdraw its troops, China’s position toward Afghanistan and the Taliban has become the center of all countries’ attention.

Prior to that, China simply repeated its long-standing foreign policy of non-interference in domestic matters, — in other words, China does not intervene in Afghanistan’s internal problems and expects Afghans to handle their own internal affairs. China, on the other hand, is very concerned about the situation in Afghanistan. China has not only made substantial investments in Afghanistan, but it has also sponsored several dialogues in China between Afghan parties.

Only because of the complexities of the situation in Afghanistan does China lack a clear answer. China has stated its particular needs more explicitly this time than in the past. China has far too many considerations when it comes to Afghanistan. However, in comparison to the behavior of many other nations, China’s demands for the Taliban this time have been well thought out, fair, and controlled.

First, China has maintained its previous favorable policy. Despite the fact that the Afghanistan problem is unique, China has not broken its foreign policy of non-interference in internal matters. On the basis of this strategy, China has had interactions with all parties in Afghanistan, ensuring that participation is not only voluntary, but also sufficient to ensure that all parties understand China’s position in order to avoid misunderstandings.

Second, China has stated its opinion on the subjects that most worry it. China has no space for compromise when it comes to national security. China has not raised this matter in the past, but it still needs to voice its viewpoint at the proper moment. As a result, China has the guts to demonstrate its stance, which will aid in the resolution of the situation.

Only when this issue is settled will future collaboration between China and Afghanistan be simple. The Taliban further said that no troops will be allowed to utilize Afghan territory to conduct activities that harm China. Atta regards China as a reliable ally and thinks that China would contribute to peaceful rebuilding.

Furthermore, China has not permitted certain ill-intentioned groups throughout the world to flourish. Following the withdrawal of the US troops, there was speculation in Western culture that China might become engaged in this issue and become the next growing power to enter the “empire’s tomb.” The Indian army’s recent intervention in Afghan politics appears to demonstrate that, as a powerful country around Afghanistan, it is hard to stay out of the issue.

China avoided the urge to intervene and managed its interactions with all sides sensibly, laying the ground for the next phase in the development of China-Afghan relations. So far, China has not fallen into the West’s trap, nor has the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan harmed its relations with all parties.

As China expands its global presence, it will eventually come into contact with nations with very difficult political and economic situations, such as Afghanistan. However, China will not flee because of obstacles, because the majority of the world’s developed countries are Western countries with strong biases against China, and those wanting to have good relations with China are frequently developing countries with varied challenges. nation. As a result, China has no option.

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Will US-China Tensions Trigger the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis?

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Half a century ago, the then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger flew to Beijing in the hope of seeking China’s alliance to contain the Soviets. His visit culminated in the U.S. agreement to recognize Beijing as the only legitimate government of China instead of Taipei, going back on the promise he had made to the president of the Republic of China, Chiang Ching-kuo, merely one year previously that Taiwan would never be abandoned by the US. The realistic American diplomat may have never thought that one day Taiwan, once ruthlessly forsaken by the US, would become the latter’s most important strategic fortress in East Asia to contain a rising China.

In 2018, the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act encouraged more high-ranking American government officials to visit Taiwan and vice versa1. The US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach landed in Taiwan two years later, rendering him the highest-level State Department official to visit the island since 19792. The Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced the cancellation of all restrictions on official contacts between the U.S. and Taiwan in January 20213 – an action that was vehemently denounced by the Chinese government as Trump’s “last-ditch madness” that would “push the Taiwan question deeper down the road of no return”4.

Just when the world thought of Joe Biden’s ascension to power as a harbinger of softer attitudes toward Beijing, especially regarding Taiwan issues, the diplomatic muscle flexed by the newly elected US president is as eye-tingling as his aviator shades – first, his Secretary of State, Blinken and Secretary of Defense, Austin made an explicit announcement of the U.S. support for Taiwan; second, he sent former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg and former senator Chris Dodd to Taiwan in honor of the 42nd anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act.

America’s incremental interest in the island is not confined to actions from its executive branches, but it has permeated its legislative system. The introduction of the confrontational “Strategic Competition Act of 2021” in April signals the anti-Soviet-style containment of China which was backed by The Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This bill echoes the “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” released by the Biden Administration in March, and it emphasizes the urgent need to “achieve United States political objectives in the Indo-Pacific” and back closer ties with Taiwan5. With strong bipartisan support, the bill is expected to be signed into law by President Biden and to serve as a legislative compass to counter China at all levels. In that respect, Taiwan Strait is more likely than ever to become “ground zero” by the U.S. and China.

On the other hand, the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement under the new National Security Law by Beijing proved to be successful due to the limited backlash received from the West. On top of that, Beijing’s handling of Xinjiang cotton issue seems to have managed to incite nationalism among Chinese people on a short notice to boycott “anti-China forces”6. With a record of 380 incursions into Taiwan’s airspace by Chinese air force during 2020, there is reason to believe that Hong Kong and Xinjiang were “guinea pigs” used by Beijing to test its capability for the fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, the probability of which has been enhanced by Xi Jinping’s attempt to seek reappointment and Beijing’s need to divert domestic attention away from the escalating social conflicts brought about by the stagnant economy.

So, the pertinent question is: if the fourth Taiwan Crisis does break out, when will it happen? It could be sometime after the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games7 as it is unlikely for China to discard the opportunity to showcase its image and test its comprehensive strength8. This could be déjà vu in light of Russia’s successful Blitzkrieg-style invasion of Ukraine in 2014, which occurred only three days after the end of Sochi Winter Olympics. However, China is not the only one who can learn from history. When the rest of the world anticipates China’s intent with regard to Taiwan, preemptive precautions will be taken. The game-theory-type strategic interaction may hence spur China to launch its attack before the upcoming international sports gala.

Another critical timing could be prior to the 20th National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2022. Xi Jinping’s abolishment of term limits through constitutional amendment may pave the legal foundation for his reappointment, but the “widespread opposition within the party”9 renders the legitimacy of his extended tenure unlikely. That is why some may find it hard to conceive of Xi’s attempt to “start an unnecessary war with Taiwan” before his re-appointment10, but his insatiable desire for a 3rd term may push him over the edge. For the time being, Xi seems to be seduced by his burgeoning self-confidence that China is charging into an epoch of opportunity where “the East is rising and the West is declining,”11 and what time is better than now to consolidate his authority in front of dissidents with a military show-off targeting Taiwan?

As Henry Kissinger12 said, “The historical challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future. Failure could set the world on fire.” When the leaders of the two greatest powers both see their own countries as the future “Leviathan” of the world, the definition of failure can no longer be merely confined to internal mismanagement, but being surpassed by international competitors. Kissinger may have overestimated some leaders’ senses of honor to bear the responsibility of the “historical challenge”, but he can be right about the catastrophic consequences of their failures. But this time, failure is not an option for either side across the Taiwan Strait nor across the Pacific Ocean

Reference

  1. Chen, Y., & Cohen, J. A. (2019). China-Taiwan Relations Re-Examined: The “1992 Consensus” and Cross-Strait Agreements. University of Pennsylvania Asian Law Review, 14(1).
  2. Mink, M. (2021). The Catalyst for Stronger US-Taiwan Ties. https://keithkrach.com/the-catalyst-for-stronger-us-taiwan-ties/
  3. Hass, R. (2021). After lifting restrictions on US-Taiwan relations, what comes next? Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/01/11/after-lifting-restrictions-on-us-taiwan-relations-what-comes-next/
  4. Global Times. (2021). Pompeo may toll the knell for Taiwan authorities. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202101/1212378.shtml
  5. Zengerle, P., & Martina, M. (2021). U.S. lawmakers intensify bipartisan efforts to counter China. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/us-lawmakers-look-advance-sweeping-bid-counter-china-2021-04-21/
  6. Cui, J., & Zhao, Y. (2021). Boycott of Xinjiang cotton use opposed. China Daily. https://www.chinadailyhk.com/article/161495
  7. Everington, K. (2021). Former US security advisor says Taiwan in “maximum danger” from PLA. Taiwan News. https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/4189160
  8. China Daily. (2021). Preparing for Winter Olympics promotes quality development – Opinio. China Daily. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202101/22/WS600a131ba31024ad0baa44f1.html
  9. The Guardian. (2020). China’s Xi Jinping facing widespread opposition in his own party, insider claims. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/18/china-xi-jinping-facing-widespread-opposition-in-his-own-party-claims-insider
  10. Roy, D. (2021). Rumors of War in the Taiwan Strait. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/rumors-of-war-in-the-taiwan-strait/
  11. Buckley, C. (2021). Xi Maps Out China’s Post-Covid Ascent. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/03/world/asia/xi-china-congress.html?_ga=2.178218534.2000768907.1619749005-1359154941.1599697815
  12. Kissinger, H. A. (2020). The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-coronavirus-pandemic-will-forever-alter-the-world-order-11585953005

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Quad Infrastructure Diplomacy: An Attempt to Resist the Belt and Road Initiative

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Over the years, the competition between the great powers in the dual space of the Indian and Pacific Oceans has been rapidly increasing. In the face of the aggravation of relations between the PRC and the United States, the defence dimension of the rivalry between the two contenders for global leadership traditionally comes to the forefront. However, in today’s context, the parties will most likely not engage in military action for the strengthening of their dominance in the region, but they will try to achieve the goals by expanding of economic influence. In this context, along with the well-known trade wars, there is an infrastructure rivalry in the region, which is enforced on Beijing by Washington and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad).

The role of Infrastructure in Indian and Pacific Oceans’ countries

The countries of Asia traditionally drawing the attention of the world community due to the high rates of economic, technological, and social development. In less than three decades, their per capita income has increased by 74%, millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, as well as a growing middle class has emerged in the region. All this became possible due to the multilateral cooperation institutionalization and the integration of the economies of the Indo-Pacific. However, the strengthening of trade and economic ties and the future prosperity of Asia largely depends on the infrastructure (ports, highways and railways, airports, pipelines, etc.), which contributes to a more active movement of goods on a regional and global scale. Moreover, back in 2009, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) published a report according to which collective investments in infrastructure in the amount of US$8 trillion will be required to maintain rapid economic growth in Asian countries.

The most prominent infrastructure initiative in recent years is the «Belt and Road Initiative» (BRI), which was launched by China’s leader Xi Jinping in 2013. The BRI helped to fill numerous infrastructure gaps, but the United States and its partners increasingly paid attention to the geostrategic aspect of China’s actions. It’s no secret that the Belt and Road plays an important role in the development and integration of China’s provinces with neighboring countries. However, with the growing number of countries participating in the BRI, as well as the strengthening of China’s influence on a regional and global scale, criticism of the strategic tools for expanding Beijing’s economic influence gradually increased. The Belt and Road has faced a number of critical remarks, including those related to accusations of purposely involving the regional countries in the so-called «debt traps». Regardless of the degree of truthfulness or study of the issue, from year to year, media reports have contributed to the building of a contradictory attitude to China’s BRI among the residents, experts, and political elites all over the world.

Moreover, as soon as Donald Trump became the U.S. President in early 2017, Washington modified the nature of its policy towards China to greater confrontation. This trend has become a direct expression of the intensified great powers’ rivalry and their struggle for hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, as well as a motivation for the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which includes the United States, Australia, India and Japan. However, the interaction of the Quad has long been built on the basis of defence.

This trend continues nowadays, as evidenced by the frequent exercises and the growing Quad naval presence in the Indo-Pacific but in 2021 the Quad countries expanded their range of issues on a multilateral basis. Now the agenda includes vaccine diplomacy (providing 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines to Indo-Pacific countries, climate change, technological cooperation, maritime security, cybersecurity, and external development assistance. According to Kurt Campbell, Indo-Pacific policy coordinator at the National Security Council, Washington is looking to convene an in-person fall summit of leaders of the Quad countries with a focus on infrastructure in the face of the challenge from China.

Quadrilateral infrastructure diplomacy as the continuing vector of the Trump’s administration

The infrastructure agenda also became an important part of the last summit of the G7 countries’ leaders, during which the parties expressed their willingness to establish a BRI counterpart called Build Back Better World (B3W). In total, there are 22 mentions of infrastructure in the final G7 Summit Communiqué. Even despite the traditionally restrained position of India, which took the time to «study the specifics of the proposal», infrastructure diplomacy of Quad is becoming a new area of geostrategic competition in the Indo-Pacific.

There’s one exception: the activities on the infrastructure track are not a new trend of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, but a continuation of the foreign policy vector set during the presidency of Donald Trump. It was he who turned Sino-U.S. rivalry into a geo-economic level. Back in 2017, the Foreign Ministers of the Quad countries stated the need for high-quality infrastructure development in order to ensure freedom and openness of sea routes, as well as improve intra-regional ties. In 2018, MoU was signed between the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia, aimed at implementing major infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, the Quad countries raised the question of the BRI countries’ growing debt during their official meeting in Singapore.

It was clear that the Belt and Road Initiative is perceived by the Quad countries as the main factor in expanding the economic and political influence of the People’s Republic of China, as well as China’s influence of the domestic political processes in the countries of Indo-Pacific. At the same time, the combination of economic and defence rivalry enforced on Beijing by Washington, as well as Quad’s efforts to build a balance of power in the region actually indicates the explicit anti-​China nature of the Quad.

In this case, it’s important to note that each of the Quad countries has its own levers of influence, which they can combine in infrastructure competition with Beijing. For example, in 2015, in response to the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) by China, Japan made the Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (PQI). The United States, in turn, announced the infrastructure project Blue Dot Network (BDN), as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia established a new Partnerships for Infrastructure (P4I). All these initiatives are united by a commitment to inclusive economic growth, «quality infrastructure», climate change, disaster response, and social development. The capitalization of the Japanese, American and Australian initiatives is US $110 billion (US$50 billion from Japan and over US$50 from the Asian Development Bank), US$30-60 million, and US$383 thousand (including access to US$4 billion of foreign aid and $US2 billion from the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific), respectively. Given the ongoing discussions about debt traps, the emphasis on «high-quality infrastructure» may give special features to the initiatives of the Quad but even the total amount of funding will not be able to compete with the US$770 billion investments already made in 138 countries of the world and announced by China.

Anyway, Quad is stepping up its infrastructure diplomacy in at least three areas, including Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the Indian Ocean. For example, Australia, Germany and Switzerland have already allocated US$13 million to the Mekong River Commission For Sustainable Development (MRC) to assist Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and, Vietnam «to respond to pressing challenges while safeguarding the ecological function of the Mekong River and improving people’s livelihoods».At the same time, Australia signed US$300 million MoU with Papua New Guinea, aimed at the ports reconstruction in the major state of Oceania (the ports of Vanimo, Kimbe, Motukea, Lorengau, Oro Bay, Daru, Lae, etc.). It is important to highlight that the increasing economic and infrastructural presence of China in the countries of Oceania, energize Australia’s policy in the South Pacific, which is a traditional zone of influence of Canberra. At the same time, the expansion of Australia’s aid and investment to the broader Indo-Pacific is due to the commitment of the current Australian government to the U.S. foreign policy.

In turn, the reaction of the Southeast Asian countries to the intensification of Quad infrastructure diplomacy will be more restrained. According to the latest Pew Research Center survey, the most unfavourable view of China is in the United States (76%), Canada (73%), Germany (71%), Japan (88%), Australia (78%), and South Korea (77%), while in Singapore — the only country representing ASEAN in the survey — the percentage of unfavourable views on China is at a low level (34%). Moreover, considering the aspects of infrastructure diplomacy in the region, we should definitely refer to the survey of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) of the political elites of the region «Powers, Norms, and Institutions: The Future of the Indo-Pacific from a Southeast Asia Perspective», published in 2020. Despite the intentional exclusion of Russia from the survey, it approximately reflects the trends in the Indo-Pacific countries at the present stage. Thus, as a result of the survey, American experts revealed that the political elites of Southeast Asia positively assess China’s activities in the field of infrastructure development, which has brought tangible benefits to most Southeast Asian countries.

Beijing’s Response

China is actively reacting to verbal attacks from the United States and Quad. The infrastructure agenda was no exception, but China responded by modernizing its global Belt and Road Initiative. In response to criticism about the involvement of the countries in debt traps, Beijing has developed a new Foreign Policy White Paper «China’s International Development Cooperation in the New Era». The document was published in early 2021. According to the provisions of the new White Paper, China will pay closer attention to the process of implementing projects within the aid framework, take an active part in evaluating projects in order to monitor their quality, maintain an appropriate level of confidence in its projects to China, as well as conduct bilateral consultations to identify difficulties with debt repayment and make sure that partners do not fall into a debt trap. It’s possible that the new vision of the PRC will appear especially quickly in countries where the Quad will primarily try to implement their infrastructure projects.

China is the first country in the region, which pays significant attention to the issues of large-scale infrastructure development. Moreover, Beijing has a number of advantages over its opponent — Quad. First, the Belt and Road initiative is more structured and aimed at intensifying trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian cooperation with neighboring countries, while the emerging Quad infrastructure agenda is «dispersed» among numerous individual initiatives, doesn’t have the same level of stability as the BRI, and even after 3.5 years of building the agenda is considered through the prism of expectations.

Second, China’s initiative is aimed at a single infrastructure connection between the PRC and the rest of the world and acts as a potential basis for the intensification of global trade in the future. At the same time, today’s projects of the Quad are of a “sporadic» nature and can’t contribute to the infrastructure linkage between Europe, Africa, South and Southeast Asia on a global scale.

Third, China can already offer the Belt and Road members not only logistics infrastructure but also the opportunities in the field of green energy. At the end of 2019, China produced about a third of the world’s solar energy and retained a leading position in the number of wind turbines. Within the foreseeable future, the Quad countries, and especially the United States, will have to compete with China even in the field of the climate agenda, which is so close to the new administration of the U.S. President Joe Biden.

Finally, during his recent speech on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (​CCP), PRC’s Leader Xi Jinping confidently declared the great revival of the Chinese nation, its contribution to the progress of human civilization, and its readiness to build a new world, which undoubtedly indicates China’s decisiveness to respond to challenges to its address, including from the Quad.

Conclusion

The ongoing transformation of the regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific, both in the defence and economic areas, will be an important aspect in the post-pandemic era. China has repeatedly stated about the «covered» Quad activities to deterrence Chinese policy in the region, but the expansion of the Quad’s agenda by infrastructure diplomacy allows us to speak about the evident vector of the Quad strategy against the PRC.

However, nowadays the Quad countries had been left behind. China already has the world’s most numerous land forces, the largest navy, as well as an ambitious global Belt and Road initiative that includes almost 140 countries and a capitalization approaching US$1 trillion. Of course, Quad is moving towards the institutionalization of its infrastructure cooperation and the potential expansion of the number of participating countries to the Quad Plus format. However, to reach China’s achievements for the period 2013-2021, the new alliance will need at least a decade.

At the same time, the rivalry of the Belt and Road with the Quad’s infrastructure initiative will help the countries of the region to diversify their infrastructure ties but will make their choice even more difficult, since it will primarily be regarded as support for the foreign policy vision of one of the parties, and not a pragmatic estimate of economic benefits. All this makes the regional environment in the Indo-Pacific increasingly complex and forces middle powers and smaller countries to adapt to new geostrategic realities.

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