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Is the Quad becoming a Potemkin alliance?

Posted By on May 28, 2024 @ 12:09

When four of the Indo-Pacific’s leading democracies—Australia, India, Japan and the United States—revived the long-dormant Quad in 2017, their objective was clear: to create a strategic bulwark against Chinese expansionism and reinforce a stable regional balance of power. But the coalition is now adrift, and the security risks this poses should not be underestimated.

The Quad’s resurrection reflected a paradigm shift in US foreign policy. After decades of engagement with China, including aiding its economic rise, US policymakers—Democrats and Republicans alike—realised that America’s biggest trade partner had become its biggest strategic adversary, bent on replacing it as global hegemon. As US President Joe Biden indicated in his 2022 National Security Strategy, China is ‘the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.’

Biden, like his predecessor, Donald Trump, viewed the Quad as an essential instrument to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific, a concept formulated by the late Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. So, Biden elevated Quad discussions from the level of foreign ministers, who had been meeting annually since 2019, to heads of state or government, initiating a flurry of leaders’ summits in 2021–23. But it has been more than a year since the Quad leaders last met, and with the US focused on the upcoming presidential election, their next summit is unlikely to be held before 2025.

The reason for this drop-off is simple: America’s priorities have changed. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and the hybrid war the West is waging in response, not to mention renewed conflict in the Middle East, have stymied US efforts to position the Indo-Pacific at the ‘heart’ of its grand strategy. It is striking that the latest US foreign-assistance package provides $60.8 billion for Ukraine but only $8.1 billion for security in the Indo-Pacific, including Taiwan, on which China has set its sights.

With limited resources to dedicate to the Indo-Pacific, Biden seems to hope that he can prevent a war over Taiwan through personal diplomacy with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Last month, in a telephone call with his Chinese counterpart, he stressed the importance of maintaining peace across the Taiwan Strait.

Biden seems to believe that a more conciliatory approach towards China can also forestall the emergence of a comprehensive Sino-Russian alliance. The ‘no-limits partnership’ between China and Russia, reaffirmed during Russian President Vladmir Putin’s visit to Beijing this month, is problematic enough; China already has undercut Western sanctions by providing an economic lifeline to Russia in exchange for cheap energy and some of Russia’s most advanced military technologies, including air-defense and early-warning systems. A full military alliance, with China supporting the Kremlin’s war machine directly, would be the United States’ worst geopolitical nightmare.

The problem for Biden is that appeasing China and strengthening the Quad, which Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has decried as the ‘Indo-Pacific version of NATO’,are fundamentally incompatible. It might not be a coincidence that the Quad leaders have not met since Biden sent a series of cabinet officials to Beijing and met with Xi in California last November.

In fact, Biden has lately shifted his focus to less provocative initiatives like the ‘Squad’, an emerging unofficial regional grouping involving Australia, Japan, and the Philippines – countries that already have mutual defense treaties with the US. But what good is an anti-China alliance without India? It is, after all, the only power that has truly locked horns with the People’s Liberation Army this century: the tense military standoff along the disputed Himalayan border, triggered by China’s stealthy territorial encroachments, has just entered its fifth year. Moreover, as the leading maritime power in the Indian Ocean, India must play a central role in checking China’s westward naval march from its new citadel, the South China Sea.

The US has also been touting its AUKUS security partnership with Australia and Britain. But this grouping will not be able to play a meaningful role in Indo-Pacific security until Australia is equipped with nuclear-powered submarines, and that will not happen for another decade.

So far, Biden’s overtures to China have yielded few positive results. On the contrary, Xi has lately intensified coercive pressure on Taiwan, and Chinese provocations in the South China Sea have been increasing. Unless the US changes its approach, it may well fail to deter China from attacking Taiwan or cementing a strategic axis with Russia, just as it failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine.

To maintain security in the Indo-Pacific, there is no substitute for a strong Quad with a clear strategic mission. Rather than unravelling years of efforts to build a coherent and credible regional strategy, thereby enabling yet more Chinese expansionism, Biden and his fellow Quad leaders must get to work defining such a mission and then commit to pursuing it. Otherwise, the Quad risks becoming a kind of Potemkin grouping. The facade of an alliance will not fool China.


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[1] paradigm shift: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/biden-should-follow-trumps-lead-on-china/

[2] elevated: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-quad-at-a-crossroads/

[3] heart: https://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech/Article/3059852/remarks-at-the-shangri-la-dialogue-by-secretary-of-defense-lloyd-j-austin-iii-a/

[4] territorial encroachments: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/beijing-replicates-its-south-china-sea-tactics-in-the-himalayas/