Biden follows Trump’s footsteps in the Indo-Pacific
President Biden has been overturning his predecessor’s policies at a frenetic pace, but on one key issue – China – he has stayed the course set by the previous administration. In a reflection of the bipartisan consensus in Washington that an increasingly aggressive China must be reined in, Biden has upped the ante by raising human-rights concerns, which Donald Trump largely ignored until the final months of his presidency. For example, while coordinating joint Western action this week to penalize China for its Muslim gulag, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that Beijing “continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.”
Nothing better illustrates how Team Biden is hewing to the Trump administration’s approach to China than the Quad, a strategic coalition of the leading democracies of the Indo-Pacific region — Australia, India, Japan and the United States. In 2017, the Trump administration resurrected the Quad, which had been lying dormant for nine years, and placed it at the center of its “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Now, at Biden’s initiative, the Quad leaders this month held their first-ever summit.
When Biden was elected, there was uncertainty over the Quad’s future, including whether the new president would carry forward his predecessor’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Even the term “Indo-Pacific” was conspicuously absent in Biden’s presidential campaign statements and the 2020 Democratic Party Platform, which repeatedly used the old name for the region that China prefers — “Asia-Pacific.”
It was only after Biden was sworn in as president that he began speaking about a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” He then proposed the Quad summit, which was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. Calling the Quad “a vital arena for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” Biden told the other leaders at the meeting that this was the “first multilateral summit that I’ve had the opportunity to host as president.”
The summit was a testament to the fact that the Biden administration inherited a coherent and realistic strategy on the Indo-Pacific, with the Quad at its core. The Quad has gradually sharpened its edges in recent years in response to China’s aggressive expansionism.
Likewise, Biden’s views on China have evolved significantly since his presidential campaign. On the campaign trail in 2019, Biden stunned many with his apparent strategic naivete by declaring, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.”
Then, in a 180-degree turn as president, Biden said during an Oval Office meeting last month, “If we don’t get moving, they [China] are going to eat our lunch.” He was talking about China’s frenzied infrastructure development at home and abroad and noting that the U.S. must step up in this regard.
Just six months ago, China dismissed the idea that an international coalition against it will emerge, saying “that day will never, ever come.” But, thanks to China’s heavy-handed use of its military and economic power, that day is coming. China has fueled the Quad’s development. For example, its military aggression in the northernmost Indian borderlands of Ladakh since April 2020 has helped to move India closer into this strategic grouping.
It is precisely this border aggression that has lent new momentum to the Quad’s progress toward a concrete and formal security arrangement. India holds the key to the Quad’s direction and future because the U.S., Australia and Japan already are tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves.
The surprise from the Biden-initiated Quad summit was that – unlike the past meetings of the Quad foreign ministers – it yielded a joint statement, which articulated a clear-eyed vision. “We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion,” the statement declared.
But make no mistake: Without real action and sustained resolve, dialogues and joint statements will not be enough to make a difference in the Indo-Pacific. An emboldened China, after tasting consecutive successes in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, could make Taiwan its next direct target. It has stepped up its expansionist activities in the Himalayan borderlands and the East China Sea.
Despite China’s lengthening shadow, the Quad summit, however, offered little in terms of concrete strategic counteraction. If anything, its vaccine initiative illustrated how a public-relations exercise can be spun into a major summit success. The summit’s “breakthrough” deal centered on helping India’s Biological E firm to produce 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses by the end of 2022, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But the firm has confirmed that it already can produce more than 1 billion vaccine doses a year.
The Biden White House would do well to grasp the urgency of developing an actionable and durable American-led approach to China, which is becoming increasingly assertive, expansionist and authoritarian. In fact, the Quad’s unifying theme is opposing China’s aggressive revisionism.
To be sure, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive policies, underlined by his hegemony-seeking “Chinese dream,” will ensure that the Quad continues to solidify and actively work toward establishing a new multilateral Indo-Pacific security structure. Even powers like France, Germany and Canada now view a rules-based Indo-Pacific as pivotal to international security. They are strengthening maritime collaboration with the Quad states.
Last November’s “Malabar” naval war games in the Indian Ocean – the first-ever Quad military drills – have been followed by “Sea Dragon,” an anti-submarine warfare exercise in January that involved the Quad members and Canada, and the scheduling of another Quad-plus naval exercise, the “La Pérouse” drills with France, for April 4.
As Biden develops great strategic clarity on China, the Quad is likely to become the central dynamic of his Indo-Pacific policy. Xi’s renegade expansionism could even help build a grand international coalition, with the Quad at its core.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).