Representatives of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States in Tokyo, Japan, October 2020
POOL New / Reuters

When former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe invited officials from Australia, India, and the United States to meet in Manila in November 2017, Chinese leaders saw little reason to worry. This gathering of “the Quad,” as the grouping was known, was merely “a headline-grabbing idea,” scoffed Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. “They are like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean: they get some attention but will soon dissipate.” Beijing had some reason for such dismissiveness. The interests of the Quad’s members were, Chinese strategists assessed, too divergent to allow for real coherence. Anyway, the Quad grouping had already been tried more than a decade earlier, with little in the way of real results.

Within a few years of that November 2017 gathering, however, Beijing had started to rethink its initial dismissiveness. By March of this year, when the Quad held its first leader-level summit and issued its first leader-level communique, Chinese officials had begun to view the Quad with growing concern. Since then, Beijing has concluded that the Quad represents one of the most consequential challenges to Chinese ambitions in the years ahead.

As “strategic competition” with China has become a rare point of bipartisan consensus in Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken to warning that his country faces a “struggle over the future of the international order” with a United States determined to thwart China’s rise. Xi believes that Beijing has an opportunity between now and 2035 to make China the world’s top economic, technological, and potentially even military power. Integral to this push is persuading countries in Asia and around the world that Chinese dominance is inevitable and that, accordingly, they have no option but to start deferring to Chinese demands. That would enable China to begin rewriting the rules of the international order—and entrench its global leadership position—without ever having to fire a shot.

The Quad is uniquely problematic for China’s strategy because its aim of unifying a multilateral coalition of resistance has the potential to stiffen spines across the whole of the Indo-Pacific and possibly beyond. For Xi, the critical question is whether the Quad will evolve to be large, coherent, and comprehensive enough to effectively balance against China, thereby undermining any sense that its dominance, in Asia or globally, is inevitable. So far, Beijing has struggled to mount an effective response to the Quad challenge. Whether Chinese officials settle on a strategy that succeeds in undermining the Quad’s progress will be one of the key factors in determining the course of U.S.-Chinese competition—and the fate of China’s global ambitions more generally— in what has already become a “decade of living dangerously.”

COME TOGETHER

Abe’s first attempt to launch the Quad came in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, when Australia, India, Japan, and the United States worked together on a disaster response. Abe saw the Quad as a way to build the four countries’ capacity to work together to meet shared regional security challenges. But the response in other capitals was tentative at best.

In Washington, President George W. Bush worried that such cooperation would unhelpfully alienate China when it needed Beijing in the “war against terrorism”; within a few years, as cables subsequently released by WikiLeaks showed, the administration was privately assuring regional governments that the Quad would never meet. In New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh repeatedly ruled out any real security cooperation with the Quad and categorized ties with Beijing as his “imperative necessity.” And in Canberra, the conservative government of John Howard worried about undermining economically beneficial ties with China and also opposed expanding existing trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan by adding India; in July 2007, Australia formally withdrew and announced the decision in Beijing soon after. When Abe, the driving force behind the Quad, unexpectedly resigned, in September 2007 (before becoming prime minister again in 2012), his successor, Yasuo Fukuda, formally consigned the Quad to the dustbin of history.

When Abe got the band back together a decade later, strategic circumstances had changed dramatically. After years of growing U.S.-Chinese tensions, assertive Chinese behavior in the South China and East China Seas, and repeated clashes between Chinese and Indian forces along their contested land border, the strategic calculus on China had evolved in all the Quad capitals. Still, Beijing thought it had little reason to worry after the Quad reassembled, in November 2017, for a working-level meeting of diplomats on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila: they failed to issue a joint communique outlining a common strategic purpose, instead releasing uncoordinated individual statements that served mostly to highlight divergences on key concerns. Beijing remained largely indifferent even after the first meeting of the Quad’s foreign ministers, in September 2019 in New York, and even when the ministers finally agreed to work together on what would become the Quad’s mantra: to “advance a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The Quad is one of the most consequential challenges to Chinese ambitions in the years ahead.

Then, in June 2020, Chinese and Indian forces clashed along their shared border, leaving 20 Indian soldiers dead and causing New Delhi, heretofore the most reluctant member of the Quad, to reassess its strategic priorities and demonstrate new eagerness to balance Chinese power. When the Quad’s foreign ministers met again, in October 2020 in Tokyo, Beijing began to pay attention. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated bluntly that Washington’s goal was to “institutionalize” the Quad, “build out a true security framework,” and even expand the grouping at “the appropriate time” in order to “counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us.” (Pompeo had earlier gathered New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam for what became known as the “Quad Plus” talks on trade, technology, and supply chain security.)

Following the meeting, India invited Australia to join its annual Malabar naval exercises held with the United States and Japan. This was notable because India had previously refused to allow Australian participation in the exercises for fear of antagonizing Beijing. Now, thanks in large part to the June 2020 border clash, all remaining hesitation in Delhi was gone. From Beijing’s perspective, the geopolitical wei qi board was suddenly looking less advantageous.

FROM DIVIDE TO ATTACK

At first, Chinese strategists seemed to think there was a relatively straightforward solution to the new challenge from the Quad: using a combination of carrots and sticks to drive a wedge between the economic and security interests of the Quad’s members. By stressing each state’s overwhelming dependence on the Chinese market, Beijing hoped to break the Quad apart.

Following the October 2020 Quad ministerial meeting and the subsequent Malabar naval exercises, Wang, the Chinese foreign minister, changed his tone dramatically, slamming the effort to build an “Indo-Pacific NATO” and calling the Quad’s Indo-Pacific strategy “a big underlying security risk” to the region. Beijing also selected a target against which to use a stick. Chinese strategic tradition advises “killing one to warn a hundred.” In this case, the idea was to kill one (Australia) to warn two (India and Japan).

Beijing had previously seemed intent on improving relations with Canberra. But without specific explanation, it suddenly imposed restrictions on imports of Australian coal—and then meat, cotton, wool, barley, wheat, timber, copper, sugar, lobster, and wine. As the smallest of the four Quad economies, Australia would, in Beijing’s judgment, be the most vulnerable to economic pressure (and by dint of size and geography, less threatening to Chinese security interests). At the same time, China worked to repair relations with India and Japan. Following years of efforts to improve ties with Tokyo, Beijing tried to finalize a visit by Xi to meet with Abe’s successor, Yoshihide Suga. And it sought to de-escalate tensions with India by negotiating an agreement to pull back troops from the area where clashes had occurred and working quietly to secure the release of a captured Chinese solider in order to avoid sparking a nationalist firestorm.

But Beijing had underestimated the effect of its own actions on Quad solidarity, and neither of these carrots had the intended effect. In Tokyo, aggravation over Chinese assertiveness in the East China Sea and concerns about human rights and Hong Kong had begun to throw the relationship into a deep chill. In Delhi, wariness of China had become deeply ingrained, no matter that the immediate standoff had been resolved. As Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar explained, the border clashes had produced greater “comfort levels” in Delhi with the need “to engage much more intensively on matters of national security” with Washington and other partners. The arrival of a new administration in Washington, one that would bring a renewed focus on allied, regional, and multilateral engagement and move quickly to resolve Trump-era trade and military-basing disputes with Asian allies, added a further obstacle to Beijing’s plan.

By early this year, Chinese officials had realized that neither ignoring nor splitting the Quad would work. So Beijing moved on to a third option: full-scale political attack.

The March meeting of the Quad’s leaders confirmed growing Chinese concerns about the grouping’s significance. By convening the Quad’s top leaders for the first time (albeit virtually) so early in his administration, U.S. President Joe Biden signaled that the group would be central to his strategy in the Indo-Pacific. And for the first time, the meeting produced a unified communique committing to promote “a free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law” and to defend “democratic values, and territorial integrity.” The Quad also pledged to jointly manufacture and distribute one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses throughout the region. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to what may be Beijing’s worst fears when he declared, “Today’s summit meeting shows that the Quad has come of age. It will now remain an important pillar of stability in the region.”

Beijing has moved to full-scale political attack.

Since then, there has been an explosion in Chinese condemnations of the Quad as a “small clique” of countries trying to “start a new Cold War.” In May, Xi denounced efforts to use “multilateralism as a pretext to form small cliques or stir up ideological confrontation.” China has begun to portray itself as the champion of “genuine multilateralism” and as the leading defender of the United Nations system. Xi and other Chinese officials have started talking more frequently about “great-power responsibility” and China’s status as the “responsible great power.” Beijing is also doubling down on its efforts to develop alternate trade frameworks by promoting its membership in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), attempting to finalize the EU-Chinese investment agreement, and flirting with the idea of joining the CPTPP (the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which evolved out of the U.S.-driven Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations). Beijing’s hope is that it can isolate and marginalize the Quad by diplomatically and commercially outflanking it on the global stage.

Yet such denunciations have so far done little to stall the Quad’s progress. Biden’s June trip to Europe—where Australia and India joined a gathering of the G-7 and U.S. discussions with the EU and NATO included a heavy China component—reinforced fears that the Quad could integrate itself into a broader anti-Chinese alliance. And U.S.-South Korean interactions, including President Moon Jae-in’s May visit to Washington, reinforced fears that the Quad could bring in South Korea and become “the Quint”; although Seoul has usually been reluctant to side explicitly with the United States against China, the two countries’ joint statement agreed that they “acknowledge the importance of open, transparent, and inclusive regional multilateralism including the Quad.”

REASON TO WORRY

China has considerable reason to worry about such developments and what they could mean for its regional and global prospects. On the security front, for example, the Quad changes Beijing’s thinking about various scenarios in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea and, to a lesser degree, in the East China Sea, as China’s sense of the likelihood of Australian, Indian, or Japanese military involvement in any conflict involving the United States grows. Especially significant would be the Quad’s coordination with the United States’ Pacific Deterrence Initiative. A distributed network of land-based antiship missiles and other precision-strike capabilities stationed in allied countries in the region could hinder Beijing’s ability to threaten Taiwan with an amphibious invasion, a blockade, or land-based missiles—although political agreement on such deployments in individual Quad countries is far from guaranteed. Another Chinese concern is that the Quad will move toward an intelligence-sharing arrangement with the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, which would allow for sensitive information on Chinese strategy and behavior to be more widely disseminated.

But the worst-case scenario from Beijing’s perspective is that the Quad could serve as the foundation of a broader global anti-Chinese coalition. If the Quad were to draw other Asian countries, the EU, and NATO into efforts to confront or undermine China’s international ambitions, it could over time swing the collective balance of power definitively against China. The Quad could also lay the groundwork for a broader allied economic, customs, and standards union, which could reshape everything from global infrastructure funding to supply chains to technology standards. The Biden White House’s senior Asia official, Kurt Campbell, has already spoken of the need to provide a “positive economic vision” for the Indo-Pacific; Beijing fears that the Quad could become the fulcrum for such an effort.

One bright spot from Beijing’s perspective is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is likely to keep its distance from the Quad, as part of its general neutrality on U.S.-Chinese tensions. Chinese officials also take comfort from continued protectionist sentiment in both Washington and Delhi, which means that neither is likely to join the CPTPP (or even RCEP) any time soon. Indeed, the gravitational pull of the Chinese economy will remain the greatest tool for weakening the Quad and subverting anti-Chinese efforts more broadly: for Beijing, China’s continued economic growth and increasing share of the global economy remain its most important strategic advantages, as they were in the past.

China will also double down on strategic and military cooperation with Russia. Moscow and Beijing have already committed to expand bilateral nuclear energy cooperation, and in a May call with Xi, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Chinese-Russian relations “the best in history.” From China’s perspective, Russia serves as a useful military partner and, with respect to the Quad, offers a way to expand China’s field of strategic options geographically. Russia’s proximity to Japan and its continued occupation of Japan’s Northern Territories, for example, could make Tokyo think twice before joining with the United States in any future military scenarios involving China.

The continued consolidation of the Quad will also drive further increases in Chinese military spending. Even if some Chinese analysts are doubtful about the actual impact of the Quad on the hard business of warfighting, military officials will argue that they must be ready for worst-case scenarios involving the Quad. Chinese officials are wary of repeating the Soviet Union’s mistake of military overextension at the expense of the civilian economy. But if they see the correlation of forces with the United States and its allies shifting against China, Beijing’s military spending will increase accordingly, turbocharging the regional arms race in Asia.

Ultimately, the biggest question may be what all of this means for Xi, especially in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress, in the fall of 2022, where Xi hopes to secure his own long-term political dominance. There is some chance that the Quad’s progress will offer Xi’s detractors additional evidence of his inclination to strategic overreach. More likely, however, is that Xi will ultimately manage to strengthen his own hand by pointing to the Quad as proof that China’s adversaries are circling the Motherland, thereby further consolidating his hold on power.

Correction Appended (August 6, 2021)

An earlier version of this article misstated the month when Australia withdrew from an earlier iteration of the Quad; it was July, not June, of 2007.

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  • KEVIN RUDD is President of the Asia Society, in New York, and previously served as Prime Minister of Australia.
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