China has identified a major challenge to its dream of a China-centric Asia Pacific, in the face of Quad. Quad’s unstated priority of countering China’s growing power is rankling the communist leadership in Beijing. The Quad calls for a free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region that is anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by any kind of coercion. China, in fact, views the Quad as a component of a broader toolkit devised by the US who, strongly encouraged by Japan, is scheming to adopt a Cold War-style plot to strategically encircle China by adding India as a member. China is under this fear that If the United States is indeed pursuing a containment strategy, it would face pressure both along its eastern frontier, southern and western flanks. Furthermore, some Chinese analysts even went on to brand the Quad as an incipient “Asian NATO”.
The informal group first came together in 2007, only to disband within months due to a lack of participation and no proper institutional framework. Its revival a decade later in 2017 came amid hardening of attitudes towards China among all the Quadrilateral partners. At first China did not take the Quad seriously. However, Chinese attitudes toward the Quad started changing in late 2020 after the grouping showed increasing momentum. The virtual summit of Quad on 12th March, 2021 forced the Chinese observers to treat the group more seriously. As the Quad conducted the Malabar Naval drills in the Indian Ocean in November 2020, Chinese state media responded by condemning the Malabar naval exercises, calling the drills a risk to regional stability but at the same time, it kept a close eye on it. Evidently, Chinese strategists are increasingly seeing the group transitioning from a loose diplomatic configuration with imperceptible impact into a more institutionalized and worrisome arrangement.
However, Chinese experts argue that China’s status as the most important trading partner of the Indian Ocean region and as the largest export market for the United States, Japan, and Australia and largest overall trade partner for India (despite recent competition from the United States), would dissuade the Quad partners from cooperating in a way that would seriously harm China’s interests. This implies that the enthusiasm varies with the political winds in each Quad member as some of them are wary of provoking China too directly.
A possible way adopted by China to tackle this challenge posed by this informal alliance could be the ‘Divide and Rule’ policy, which would simply mean creating conflicts among the members and reducing the pace of the activities of the group. Besides, Chinese analysts do acknowledge that growing disputes between China and other states contributed to these developments. The deadly, historic June 2020 Galwan valley clash at the Sino-Indian border marred China’s earlier attempts to stabilize relations with India. This led India to become much more actively engaged in the Quad. Similarly, a deteriorating Sino-Australian relationship led Canberra to become even more inseparable from the United States. China has been using coercive trade practices to target Australia who supported the demand for asking for an independent probe into the origin of the coronavirus. China retaliated by targeting Australian beef exports and banning Australian wine. It is not that the Chinese government cares about wine, beef, or any such commodities, but the real game is to create societal splits that pressure the governments to change their respective foreign policy towards China.
Furthermore, some Chinese strategists took the Quad’s coalescence in 2020 as a signal that China should refocus its attention on sidelining the Quad from larger regional institutions and arrangements that are perceived to be less beholden to the U.S. interests. Some other Chinese analysts assert that China, by deepening strategic interactions and increasing maritime security cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), would be able to counterweight the Quad. However, China’s diabolic behavior in other parts of Asia and its increasing encroachment into the South China sea only incentivizes the Quad to work together more closely.
On top of this, adding fuel to the fire, is the formation of a new purpose-built security alliance, on 15th september 2021, among the US, UK and Australia under which Australia would be equipped with a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) by the US and the UK, presumably to handle the undeclared objective of countering China’s expansion in the Indo-pacific region. The Aukus seems to be another step towards reconfiguring the Indo-pacific balance of power and countering China’s soaring might. It is a security alliance that links disparate parts of the world- Europe, the Americas and Australasia, and is again thereby instrumental in encircling China. This trilateral pact reflects some of China’s worst fears and has garnered serious backlashes from the country as well.
China and its mouthpiece ‘Global Times’ reacted predictably and it was one of anger and recrimination. Beijing condemned the agreement as “extremely irresponsible” and that it “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race”. Furthermore, China’s embassy in Washington went on to accuse the Aukus countries of forming the pact with a “Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice”.
At the same time, China has, somehow, got the feeling that it itself is the prime reason for the rise of Aukus. The dragon is embarking on one of the biggest military spends in history. It is growing its navy and air force at a rapid rate and has been accused of raising tensions in disputed territories.
Nevertheless, the Chinese government believes that it can dwarf Quad’s prospects by leveraging its status as a top trade and political partner for both the Quad and non-Quad states alongside showing that America’s commitment to Asian security was diminishing as well as by driving wedges between the four states. India is the only Quad member which has an unsettled land border with China who has done its best to create some apprehension in the minds of the other Quad members, by keeping Sino-India relations fluctuating between tension and harmony with incidents like Doklam, Wuhan, Malappuram and the Galwan valley.
China mishandling its relations with its own ASEAN neighbours like Vietnam and Philippines is a strategic blunder that the both the Trump and Biden administrations effectively exploited to advance their own strategy. As a result, China needs, as some analysts opine, to balm the disputes with its neighbors so that they don’t become an outpost for the U.S. to subvert China.
What is vital to take note of is that no single nation can go alone against China, not even the US. Strength is found in multilateralism and China seems to be fearing the strength that emanates from multilateralism. Even though it is a newbie in invigilating the Indo-Pacific, the Aukus marks the consolidation of China’s worst fears and can be taken as crucial for sharpening the claws of the Quad.
It’s too early to say whether the Quad will achieve its unstated goal- stopping an authoritarian China from becoming Asia’s undisputed hegemon. But the four nations have signed on to an ambitious strategy, spanning cooperation on vaccines, infrastructure and technology, all designed to blunt Beijing’s sharpness. Taken together with the new Aukus military pact and a thickening web of bilateral agreements across the region, these initiatives signal a clear intent to combat China. Importantly, China has always tried to deal with every country on bilateral terms, using its Comprehensive National Power (CNP) to its advantage. In any forthcoming bilateral engagements with the US, Japan and India, China will continue to aim for weakening the Quad, by some bilateral concessions. So it will be quite interesting to observe what more tactics China employs to maneuver its path filled with spikes placed by Quad and the Aukus.