As the United States seeks to formalise a four-nation alliance to counter China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific, Chinese foreign policy observers are asking whether Beijing’s assertiveness has pushed its regional neighbours closer to Washington.
In a meeting with the foreign ministers of Japan, India and Australia in Tokyo on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appealed for nations to counter what he called the Chinese Communist Party’s “exploitation, corruption and coercion”, signalling Washington’s desire to strengthen the so-called Quad from a loose grouping into a Nato-like security alliance.
While Beijing has yet to formally respond to the comments made at the meeting, the Chinese embassy in Tokyo said in a statement on Wednesday that multilateral groupings should not be “exclusive cliques” that threaten the interests of third parties.
“Pompeo has repeatedly fabricated lies about China and maliciously created political confrontation. We once again urge the US to abandon its Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice, stop unprovoked accusations and attacks against China and treat relations with China in a constructive manner,” it said.
Chinese foreign policy analysts say that while it is unlikely the Quad will become a formal treaty alliance like Nato, Beijing must come to terms with the fact its aggressive posturing in recent years may have pushed its neighbours closer to one another and the US.
“Since the [coronavirus] pandemic, in the past nine months or so, the Quad has evolved from being a loose grouping based on a vague concept to now emerging as a political and military bloc that sees China as their common challenge,” said Pang Zhongying, an international relations expert with Ocean University of China in Shandong province.
“It is not a Nato yet, but it is a development that poses a serious challenge to China’s security interests in the region,” he said.
While Pompeo’s anti-China rhetoric was not fully embraced by all members of the Quad, the meeting came as Washington, Canberra, New Delhi and Tokyo are locked in their own conflicts with Beijing.
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said he and Pompeo exchanged views on China’s territorial disputes with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and Beijing’s militarisation of disputed waters in the South China Sea.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Quad countries believed in a region “governed by rules, not power”.
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar also spoke of the importance of “upholding the rules-based international order” and said the Quad grouping had grown in importance.
The four ministers agreed to boost cooperation on maritime security, cyberspace and the building of quality infrastructure in the region. They also agreed to hold their four-way ministerial meeting on a regular basis, the Japanese foreign ministry reported.
Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the strengthening of the Quad grouping could be seen as a response to Beijing’s actions in the region.
“The formalisation of Quad, to a certain extent, is closely linked to China’s security policy and its assertive posturing in recent years,” he said.
“We can also see that there is the spillover effect of increased coordination among countries in the region to restructure their supply chains to reduce reliance on China and restrict market access for Chinese tech companies, as well as an increased interest from countries outside the region, such as Germany, to echo the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy,” he said.
Germany last month announced a set of Indo-Pacific policy guidelines, becoming the second European country after France to formally adopt a strategy for the Indo-Pacific region.
US officials like Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper have recently spoken of the need to build a collective security alliance in the Indo-Pacific region.
The US has also invited countries like South Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam to join what Washington calls the Quad Plus meetings.
Both Pang and Li said it was unlikely that those countries would formally join the bloc, given their desire to maintain good ties with China.
The future of the Quad is also uncertain because it is unclear whether the Democratic nominee in the US presidential race, Joe Biden, would support it if he won the race for the White House.
But Li said Beijing should still take steps to ensure the alliance did not get any stronger.
“If China is able to handle regional security issues with a less assertive tone, there is likely to be less incentive for countries in the region to band together and strengthen the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy,” he said.
“China has been trying to adjust its policy and soften its tone in recent years, but it’s not easy to make drastic adjustments as we [Beijing] still need to take domestic politics and public opinions into consideration.”