President Biden hosted a summit on Friday that could turn out to be a watershed – but if you did not join, you might have missed it.
The meeting brought together the leaders of a deliberately low-key group called “the Quad”: the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
U.S. officials downplayed the session, describing it as “an informal gathering of leading democracies in the Indo-Pacific.”
China did not let itself be fooled. Its diplomats have spent months condemning the Quad as a Cold War-style alliance aimed at limiting Beijing’s progress as the dominant power in Asia.
And they are right.
Biden and his other Quad leaders never publicly uttered the word “China,” but Quad is about containment. It seeks to blunt China’s growing influence, deter it from launching military adventures, and prevent it from pushing the United States and other countries out of Asia’s growing markets.
Quad is not a military alliance – formally at least. A Biden aide who briefed journalists before the summit made an effort to say it three times in 20 minutes.
But last month, four navies staged a massive military exercise in the Philippine Sea east of China. The participants were the same four: USA, Japan, India and Australia.
All four are democracies. More to the point, all four have been alarmed to see China exercise economic and military power to get its way – from seizing islands and building bases on disputed territory in the South China Sea to threatening Taiwan and attacking Indian armies in the Himalayas.
In Australia, the muscle China used was economical: After Australia called for an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, Beijing retaliated by cutting back on imports of Australian beef and urging the Canberra government to stifle “anti-China” statements “by Members of Parliament and the Media.
The naked pressure backfired; The Aussies got their backs up and decided to move closer to the United States.
One result was Aukus, the new military partnership between Australia, Britain and the United States, whose first major project is to build nuclear power. submarines for the Australian Navy.
Between Quad and Aukus, “we see the emergence of a new security architecture,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund in the United States. “It sends a signal to Beijing that other countries are willing to stand together and defend a rules-based international order.”
Including China has become a top priority in US foreign policy, too coalition building as Biden’s favorite instrument. That should not be surprising; it is a theater where the United States has a clear advantage.
China is very good at many things: economic growth, major construction projects, acquisition of foreign technology, cyber espionage. But it has not succeeded in making friends. It is a superpower with client states, but no real allies, unless one counts Pakistan and more recently Russia.
It helps explain the rage in Chinese condemnations of Quad, Aukus and other regional groupings: It’s a game they can not play.
The question is whether China will launch a military challenge against the new coalition before the United States has time to consolidate it.
The test may come across Taiwan, the breakaway province that China’s ruling Communist Party has long promised to re-incorporate into the motherland.
“The standard view in Asia is that Taiwan is the canary in the coal mine,” said Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official whose new book, “The Strategy of Denial,” focuses on the confrontation between the United States and China.
The recently retired commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Navy adm. Phil Davidson, warned in March that China could pose a serious threat to Taiwan “for the next six years,” Colby noted.
Chinese President Xi Jinping “can see that the trends are not favorable,” Colby said.
Australia’s new submarines could help deter a seaborne invasion, for example, but they will not be in the water for more than a decade. So the Chinese leader could see the next few years as a last resort to take Taiwan by force.
“We should be worried,” Colby said.
If this is starting to sound like the bad old days of the Cold War, when the United States and its allies were obsessed with the prospect of a Soviet invasion of Europe, it should.
Of course, no historical analogy is perfect. Our competition-plus-conflict with China is complicated by the deep economic entanglement of the two countries, which was not the case with the Soviet Union.
But in most other respects, the comparison fits: two nuclear superpowers that disagree on ideology often see global power as a zero-sum game and – in the case of the United States – build coalitions and alliances to amplify their influence.
“We are not looking for a new Cold War,” said Biden in the UN last week. But thanks to Xi’s confidence, he’s got one – and no matter how reassuring his words, he’s acting accordingly.