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Biden should be aware of the limits of the Quad

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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi received the red-carpet treatment at the White House last week for the first in-person meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. President Biden’s decision to host the summit comes about six months after the Quad released a joint leaders statement pledging to “commit to promoting a free, open rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific region. 

For Biden, the leaders’ summit is a golden opportunity to elevate a broad theme of his presidency: utilizing international partnerships to manage the challenges of the 21st century, in particular China’s quest to become Asia’s dominant power. But if the Biden administration seeks to turn the Quad into an anti-China balancing coalition or, more dramatically, a new NATO in Asia, it will be setting itself up for disappointment. While Australia, Japan and India all have strong disagreements with China and are growing increasingly concerned about Beijing’s behavior in the region, none of these countries seem especially interested in allowing Washington to dictate its policy in Asia. Unlike Washington, the Japanese, Indians and Australians live in the Indo-Pacific and have to be especially careful before rocking the boat with Beijing. 

As China’s economic and military strength grows, the nation is getting more assertive as it moves to protect its own interests. Last year, Chinese naval vessels sailed in the waters of the Japanese-administered Senkaku islands for 333 consecutive days, deployments that continue to test Tokyo’s defensive measures and response time. Japan’s Defense Ministry, in its most recent annual white paper, stressed that “Chinese military trends…have become a matter of grave concern to the region.” India, meanwhile, is still facing off with tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers on the other side of its disputed Himalayan border, where there were clashes last year. China is also continuing its campaign of economic pressure against Australia, adopting tariffs and import restrictions on everything from Australian wine and barley to coal and seafood.  

These problems aside, Australia, Japan and India recognize their friction with China would get even worse should they use the Quad as a vessel to confront Beijing. This is especially true in New Delhi, which is careful to avoid picking sides between the world’s two greatest powers. Historically paranoid about U.S. security promises, India is following a path of multi-alignment, which encourages the improvement of relations with as many countries as possible in order to preserve flexibility, keep its options open, and retain freedom of movement in a tricky region of the world. For India to follow Washington’s lead or throw its weight fully in the U.S. camp would rip that doctrine apart. It would also have dangerous economic consequences for India at a time when its trade relationship with China has reached record levels ($57.48 billion) in the first quarter.

Japan has longstanding territorial arguments with Beijing and is no doubt becoming more outspoken about Taiwan, perhaps China’s most sensitive issue. The Japanese defense budget has also gotten larger every year for the last nine straight years, driven in large part by China’s saber-rattling. Yet just because the Japanese are purchasing more F-35’s, long-range missiles and warships doesn’t mean Tokyo is looking for a fight — especially a fight that would jeopardize the very export markets that undergird Japan’s $5 trillion economy. With China consuming more than 20 percent of Japan’s total exports last year, Tokyo’s limitations are quite real.       

Australia is arguably the one member of the Quad that may be sympathetic to using the multilateral forum to push back against China. Canberra clearly had China in mind when it decided to opt-out of a diesel-powered submarine deal with France in favor of U.S. and British nuclear propulsion technology. While senior Biden administration officials were insisting that the new AUKUS security pact between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia wasn’t about any one country, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne all but stated openly that China’s behavior was the genesis of the arrangement.

Even so, Australia isn’t in the position to compete with China militarily — certainly not without substantial U.S. military and logistical assistance. The South China Sea is roughly 3,000 miles away from Australia, which means the Australian navy would need to go to extraordinary lengths just to become a serious contributor to a hypothetical anti-China military coalition. The economics of such a decision wouldn’t be lost on the Australian government; at $245 billion, China accounted for 31 percent of Australia’s total trade last year. If China was willing to levy trade restrictions in retaliation for Australia’s call for an international investigation into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s not difficult to envision Beijing taking even more strident action against the Australian economy if Canberra outsourced its China policy to Washington.

None of this is to argue that the Quad is useless. To the extent common interests bind the United States, Australia, Japan and India together, a regional forum such as the Quad can be a force multiplier, providing all four nations with the opportunity to collaborate and sync their approaches. But Biden would be wise to avoid transforming this multilateral club into a formal security alliance. The other members aren’t interested in choosing sides. And Washington shouldn’t force them to do so. 

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

Tags Australia India Indo-Pacific International relations Japan Joe Biden Quadrilateral Security Dialogue The Quad US-Asia trade relations US-China relations USA

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