Xi Jinping, Joe Biden.
Doyle McManus, Tribune News Service
President Joe Biden hosted a summit meeting on Friday that could turn out to be a watershed — but if you weren’t watching, you might have missed it.
The meeting brought together the leaders of a deliberately low-key group called “the Quad”: the United States, Japan, India and Australia. US officials downplayed the session, describing it as “an informal gathering of leading democracies in the Indo-Pacific.”
China wasn’t fooled. Its diplomats have spent months denouncing the Quad as a Cold War-style alliance aimed at containing Beijing’s rise as the dominant power in Asia.
And they’re right.
Biden and his fellow Quad leaders never publicly uttered the word “China,” but the Quad is all about containment. It seeks to blunt China’s growing influence, deter it from launching military adventures and prevent it from muscling the United States and other countries out of Asia’s growing markets.
The Quad isn’t a military alliance — formally, at least. A Biden aide who briefed reporters before the summit took pains to make that point three times in 20 minutes.
But last month, four navies staged a massive military exercise in the Philippine Sea east of China. The participants were the same four: the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
All four are democracies. More to the point, all four have been alarmed to see China exert economic and military power to get its way — from seizing islands and building bases on contested territory in the South China Sea to threatening Taiwan and attacking Indian army positions in the Himalayas. In Australia, the muscle China used was economic: After Australia called for an investigation of the origins of the coronavirus, Beijing retaliated by cutting imports of Australian beef and called on the Canberra government to stifle “anti-China statements” from members of Parliament and the media.
The naked pressure backfired; the Aussies got their backs up and decided to move closer to the United States. One result was Aukus, the new military partnership of Australia, Britain and the United States, whose first big project is building nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian navy. Between the Quad and Aukus, “we’re seeing the emergence of a new security architecture,” Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told me.
Containing China has become a top priority of US foreign policy, with coalition-building as Biden’s instrument of choice. That shouldn’t be surprising; it’s one theater in which the United States enjoys a clear advantage.
China is very good at many things: economic growth, large-scale construction projects, acquiring foreign technology, cyber espionage. But it hasn’t been successful at making friends.
That helps explain the fury of Chinese denunciations of the Quad, Aukus and other regional groupings: It’s a game they can’t play. The question is whether China will launch a military challenge against the new coalition before the US has time to consolidate it. The test could come over Taiwan, the breakaway province that China’s ruling Communist Party has long vowed to reincorporate into the motherland. “The standard view in Asia is that Taiwan is the canary in the coal mine,” said Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official whose new book, “The Strategy of Denial,” focuses on the US-China confrontation.
The recently retired commander of US forces in the Pacific, Navy Adm. Phil Davidson, warned in March that China could pose a serious threat to Taiwan “in the next six years,” Colby noted.
Chinese President Xi Jinping “can see that the trends are not favourable,” Colby said.
“We are not seeking a new Cold War,” Biden said at the United Nations last week. But thanks to Xi’s assertiveness, he’s gotten one — and no matter how soothing his words, he’s acting accordingly.
The two leaders spoke just hours after Biden announced plans for a Pentagon task force to review US national security strategy in China and after the new US president announced he was levying sanctions against Myanmar’s military regime following this month’s coup in the southeast Asian country.
Xi reiterated during the call that cooperation was the only choice and that the two countries need to properly manage disputes in a constructive manner, according to an account of the conversation reported by Chinese state television.
On Thursday, Biden told a bipartisan group of US senators at a meeting on the need to upgrade US infrastructure the United States must raise its game in the face of the Chinese challenge.
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