Bangkok In the Himalayas, Chinese troops engage in deadly skirmishes with Indian soldiers. Confrontations between Japanese ships and China’s coast guard broke out off the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. At the same time, coal transport ships coming from Australia have been waiting off China for months, which are not allowed to dock due to an unofficial import stop. There are three arenas of a dangerous development: China’s increasingly aggressive demeanor threatens to cover Asia with a whole series of conflicts.
The four summit participants have been exchanging ideas since 2007 in an informal organization that was founded at the time under the awkward name of “quadrilateral security dialogue” – or Quad for short. For a long time, the discussion forum remained largely below the threshold of awareness outside of military and diplomatic circles.
It was not until Donald Trump’s term in office that the group acquired strategic importance for the Americans – as a possible alliance against China. Biden now wants to significantly upgrade the quad group: With his commitment to participate in the summit conference, the exchange in this format will take place for the first time at the level of the heads of government.
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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was delighted with this development: “We couldn’t be happier,” he said on Wednesday. Australia has long campaigned to intensify quad relationships. “Quad is central to America and our deliberations on the region,” he emphasized several days ago.
Australia wants to make summits a regular format
In his view, the summit meetings of the four countries at the highest level should become a core element of Asia policy. It is not about creating an organization with a large bureaucracy of its own, he added. “There are four heads of state and four countries who are working together and constructively on peace, prosperity and stability in the region.”
From an Australian perspective, clashes with China have been a particularly great obstacle to peace and prosperity in recent months. Relations between the Beijing and Canberra governments had deteriorated rapidly after Australia last year called for an independent investigation into coronavirus origins in the Chinese metropolis of Wuhan.
In addition, Australia introduced new rules to make Chinese takeovers in the country more difficult. China responded with trade restrictions and tariffs on imports from Australia, which hit the country’s economy hard.
Tensions with China have also increased noticeably recently in India and Japan. The deadly clashes on the long-disputed Sino-Indian border in the Himalayas led India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to slow down Chinese investments in his country.
He also imposed a ban on dozens of Chinese smartphone apps – including the social media platform Tiktok – on the grounds that they pose a threat to national security. At the same time, media reports indicate that Japan is considering sending troops to a group of islands claimed by both countries, amid mounting tensions with China.
In the past, the Chinese government initially reacted to the informal alliance of its opponents with mocking remarks. Quad is just an idea to make headlines. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi predicted three years ago that the group will soon disintegrate like the whitecaps of waves in the sea.
Because this prognosis has not yet come true, Wang turned to urgent warnings: He complained that the US was trying to build an Asian version of NATO and said that this was a “huge security risk” for the stability of the region.
China threatens punitive measures
Shortly before a conference of Quad foreign ministers in February, China’s state media warned that the People’s Republic could react with economic punitive measures if the Quad countries crossed “red lines” with their plans. The Quad ministers subsequently identified a free and open Indo-Pacific region as one of their core demands – a diplomatic formulation for the rejection of a Chinese supremacy.
The federal government had also issued Indo-Pacific guidelines last year and spoke out in favor of “maintaining the rule-based order” in the region. Germany wants to underline this with a frigate of the Bundeswehr, which is to be on the way in East Asia this year to demonstrate its commitment to free sea trade routes.
The Quad group recently also focused on maritime security policy: In November, for the first time since 2007, all four countries took part in the large-scale “Malabar” military exercise off the Indian coast. The government in New Delhi also concluded agreements with Australia and the USA which allow countries to refuel their ships at Indian bases.
India can rely on greater support from the Americans in the future: In October, the US government granted the Indian army access to real-time satellite data. It was about “the threats to security and freedom from China’s Communist Party”, said the then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the agreement.
Biden is not adopting the Trump administration’s aggressive rhetoric against China, but his administration is also extremely critical of the People’s Republic’s behavior. A national security report released by the White House in early March described dealing with China as the greatest global challenge of the moment. It is the only competitor whose economic and military power is potentially capable of endangering the stable and open world order, it said.
US Army warns of invasion of Taiwan
A senior American army official warned the US Senate this week that China may attempt to invade Taiwan in the coming years. China’s President Xi Jinping called on his country’s military to be prepared to fight in the face of instability – the armed forces must always be ready to “react to difficult situations”.
Despite the military tensions, the Quad countries don’t just want to talk about security policy on Friday. Biden’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki announced that the heads of state and government have economic cooperation, the climate crisis and Covid-19 on the agenda.
According to media reports, the four countries are working on a plan to counter China’s so-called vaccination diplomacy in the corona crisis with an alternative. The government in Beijing is supplying numerous emerging countries in Asia with corona vaccination doses and is trying to secure the goodwill of neighboring countries. The Quad countries now apparently want to start a similar joint initiative to make countries in Asia less dependent on China’s vaccine deliveries.
According to a report by the Reuters news agency, India sees itself at the center of the project. The country is home to the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, which currently produces several million Corona vaccine doses per day and has already exported some of them abroad. Now Indian producers are apparently to receive additional financial aid from the USA, Australia and Japan to buy the vaccines from the US manufacturers Johnson & Johnson and Novavax to produce.
For Biden, the summit on Friday is only likely to be the start of his planned Asia focus in foreign policy. For April, he invited Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to the White House – the first face-to-face meeting with a counterpart in his term in office. In Alaska, the Americans also want to speak to China at a foreign ministers’ summit. Biden’s spokeswoman said: Do not hold back from voicing concerns about China. “But we’re also looking for ways to work together.”
More: How Premier Modi wants to attract high-tech factories from China to India.