Experts say official Chinese documents belie ‘nine-dash line’ as Beijing asserts dominance in South China Sea.
The navies of Australia, India, Japan and the United States held their biggest naval drills this month, sending warships, submarines and aircraft to the Indian Ocean, in a move analysts said signalled the four countries’ seriousness in countering China’s military and political influence in the Indo-Pacific region.
There was little comment from officials in Beijing, but Chinese state media condemned the Malabar naval exercises, with the Global Times newspaper calling the drills a risk to regional stability.
The tabloid alleged the exercises were part of an effort aimed at containing China’s rise and labelled the four-country alliance “the Asian version of NATO” – a term first used by China’s top diplomat to describe the informal grouping known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or simply, the Quad.
The group first came together in 2007, touting the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, only to disband within months amid protests from China. Its revival a decade later came amid worsening bilateral ties between China and the US, India and Australia.
“The first time the Quadrilateral grouping was proposed, it was a far more tentative partnership,” said Herve Lemahieu, director of the power and diplomacy programme at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. “Australia in particular was sceptical of the need for a Quad and it was wary of upsetting diplomatic relations with China. That’s why the initial iteration fell apart.
“Since then, there has been a hardening of attitudes towards China among all the Quadrilateral partners,” he said. “And in that sense, Beijing has been its own worst enemy.”
Under President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, Beijing has become more nationalistic and assertive. It has cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, interned more than one million Muslims in the far western region of Xinjiang and stepped up threats of military force to seize the self-ruled island of Taiwan.
It is also rapidly modernising its defence forces and increasing its military presence in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
This April, with the world distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat close to the Paracel islands in the South China Sea. Later, a standoff between a Malaysian oil exploration vessel and a Chinese survey vessel, off Malaysia’s Borneo, prompted the US and Australia to deploy warships to the area.
The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan all lay claim to parts of the energy-rich waters, but Beijing, which claims almost the entire area under its decades-old “nine-dash line”, has been extending its reach by building military bases on reefs and rocky outcrops.
A United Nations tribunal ruled in 2016 that China’s “historical rights” had no basis in the law.
On China’s Himalayan frontier with India, long-simmering tensions boiled over in June, with troops from both sides fighting each other with clubs and stones in the Galwan Valley. The clashes left 20 Indian soldiers dead and was the first fatal confrontation between the two sides since 1975.
Friction also increased in the East China Sea, where China has a territorial dispute with Japan, with the US accusing Beijing in July of “unprecedented” military incursions into the disputed waters.
“The Quad comes about as an effort to try to deter China’s ability to challenge and disrupt the rules-based order and the status quo in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Lemahieu. “It’s a signalling on the part of these four democracies that they are and they would get even more serious about acting as a military and strategic counterweight to China, if Beijing were to continue to challenge [the status quo], not just in the South China Sea but also in the Indian Ocean.”
What also worries the four countries, Lemahieu said, is China’s willingness to exploit “economic interdependencies to try to level informal sanctions” to punish countries that oppose it.
For instance, this year, Beijing slapped trade sanctions on Australia, after Canberra backed an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. It suspended some beef imports on a technicality and effectively blocked barley imports by imposing huge tariffs on the Australian grain. Australian traders are now expecting more sanctions on exports of Australian wine, timber and even lobsters.
Amid the escalating tensions, there appears to be a newfound resolve among the Quad countries to do more to check China’s influence. But analysts say the three-year-old informal alliance faces major challenges.
First, there appears to be no consensus among the Quadrilateral partners on how to go about deterring Beijing.
Under outgoing President Donald Trump, Washington seems to be advocating for a classic, Cold-War style, containment strategy. US-China relations have plummeted to an all-time low – owing to disputes over trade, the coronavirus pandemic and Beijing’s crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong – and countering China was a key focus of Trump’s failed re-election bid. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this year framed the effort as an ideological battle and called it the “mission of our time”.
And in October, following a meeting of the Quad foreign ministers in Tokyo, Pompeo railed against what he called the Chinese Communist Party’s “exploitation, corruption and coercion”, adding it was “critical now more than ever” that the four countries collaborate to counter China.
But for Australia and Japan, the US strategy may be one step too far.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner and Japan’s second-biggest one.
Earlier this month, Tokyo and Canberra joined the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade deal that includes 13 other Asia Pacific nations and encompasses nearly a third of the world’s population and its economic activity. Tokyo and Canberra’s decision to sign on, analysts say, is indicative of their desire to do business with China even as they seek to deter its growing clout in the region.
These competing and overlapping interests mean that for all of China’s attempts to portray the Quad as a US-led “Asian NATO”, the grouping was unlikely to become a formal security alliance, said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There is just not enough shared strategic interest or shared desire to accept risk on the military front,” he said. “The way that the four different Quad members view their interests in the Indo-Pacific leads them to prioritise different areas. For instance, for the US, South China Sea and East China Sea are vital. Same goes for Japan. And for Australia, it also includes the Western Pacific. But for India, the Quad is about the Indian Ocean and South China Sea is a secondary theatre.
“So, while India may be willing to help with capacity-building, it’s not going to actually take risks that might involve violence or escalation in the South China Sea.”
A US push for the Quad to take an explicit anti-China stance also runs the risk of alienating India, a country that is traditionally proud of its non-aligned status, Poling said.
“It’s one thing for India to have a tense, antagonistic relationship with Beijing. It’s another for India to be part of an explicit coalition that seeks to contain Beijing. That would feel far too much like being part of a bloc. And India historically has resisted that,” he explained.
Such a push also risks estranging other countries in the region, who are wary of escalating the competition for power in the region.
Indonesia, for instance, which is also proud of its non-aligned tradition, rejected earlier this year a proposal by the US to allow its P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance planes to land and refuel there, according to the Reuters news agency.
Retno Marsudi, Indonesia’s foreign minister, declined to comment on Reuters’ October report, but told the agency earlier in the year that Jakarta does not want “to get trapped by this rivalry.
“Indonesia wants to show all that we are ready to be your partner,” she added.
The move paid off.
When Indonesian ministers and officials scoured the world for access to a COVID-19 vaccine, it was China that came to Jakarta’s aid, not the US.
“A lot of countries are very wary, not just of China but of great power competition,” said Lemahieu, the Lowy Institute expert. “And they see the Quad as a facet of great power competition, with the potential of further destabilising the region … So the Quad needs to work to reassure the region that it is more than just a military counterweight to China, but that it is willing to apply itself in shoring the rules-based order, particularly in the economic multilateral rules based order.
“In fact, if the Quad was serious about countering China in the Indo-Pacific, it needs to offer an alternative to China’s economic diplomacy,” he added. “The world is far more interdependent than during the last Cold War. Ideology matters far less, economic advantage matters far more.”
The Quad reportedly did hold discussions in 2018 on the need to establish a joint regional infrastructure scheme as an alternative to China’s multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative, but there has been no apparent progress on the issue.
And therein may lie the group’s greatest challenge.
Einar Tangen, a Beijing-based political analyst, said he expects China to step up economic support for neighbours in the face of a stronger Quad alliance.
“What China wants to avoid is the kind of Cold War containment where its neighbours are pulled into an antagonistic relationship,” he said. “Their answer to this militaristic approach is an economic one.”
Indeed, days after signing the RCEP, the Chinese president pledged to open the country’s giant economy for business – echoing an earlier pledge to import more than $22 trillion worth of goods over the next 10 years.
In his speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on Thursday, Xi also said China will sign free trade pacts with more countries, adding: “China will actively cooperate with all countries, regions and enterprises that want to do so. We will continue to hold high the banner of openness and co-operation.”
Those words may draw some scepticism in countries where China has used its “super-sized” economy as a bargaining chip, such as in Australia, and some others may also be wary of Chinese offers of aid, with many poorer countries already heavily indebted to Beijing.
Tangen, however, said he expected China to change tack on the provision of aid.
“China has learned that other countries do not plan the way China does. When they offer money to a government, China doesn’t specify what they should do. They specify what they will support. Roads, bridges, hospitals, electrical infrastructure, and it’s left up to the country’s leaders what projects they want to do, and at what scale,” he said. “That has problems, however, because when you don’t plan and you get what you see as a windfall, you tend to put the projects where there is some benefit, especially to your supporters … There’s also the issue of whether the infrastructure was needed at the scale created.”
China was now more likely to funnel financial assistance through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which it set up in 2016, said Tangen. “Instead of the Chinese government showing up on your doorstep and saying, hey, we want to support you, what do you want to do, it’ll be more up to the countries to justify and go through a regular banking process.”
Where does all this leave the Quad? And can a decentralised grouping that lacks shared strategic goals deter China’s growing economic and military might?
For Poling, the US expert, the Quad’s strength lies in its semi-formality.
“The Quad is clearly not a security alliance and that makes it hard for China to prop it up as part of this US-containment narrative and it’s having trouble rallying criticism, even from its allies,” he said.
The combination of US, Japan, Australia and India lends the Quad “an enormous amount of diplomatic weight”, he continued, because criticism from a grouping that also includes non-aligned India is harder for China to brush off.
“Their ultimate goal,” Poling said, “has to be to convince Beijing that if it wants to be a global leader, it will have to follow certain rules. None of the Quad members have enough weight to impose costs and convince China on their own. But maybe the Quad as a unit, working in collaboration with the Europeans on some specific issues, Southeast Asians on other issues, maybe that does have enough weight to convince Beijing that if it wants to play the global role it envisions for itself, then it will have to moderate its behaviour.”