Joe Biden will host the first in-person summit of the Quad countries – the US, India, Japan and Australia – at the White House on Friday as he ratchets up the reorientation of US foreign policy towards the Pacific and the containment of China.
The summit, which will seek to deepen ties within the ad hoc grouping, will take place just nine days after the surprise announcement of the Aukus security agreement between Australia, the UK and US, built around the sharing of nuclear-propulsion technology with Australia for its new submarine fleet.
Aukus and an invigorated Quad are the two central pillars of the US president’s signature foreign policy, which some are calling the Biden doctrine: bolstering the world’s democracies against the spread of authoritarianism by building a web of alliances.
As he told the United Nations general assembly on Tuesday, Biden sees this competition between democracy and autocracy as approaching “an inflection point in history”.
“In my view, how we answer these questions in this moment – whether we choose to fight for our shared future or not – will reverberate for generations yet to come,” he said.
When Biden, India’s Narendra Modi, Australia’s Scott Morrison and Japan’s outgoing prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, meet in the White House, there will be announcements on Covid, with the aim of producing a billion vaccines in India by the end of next year, and on climate action and a green shipping network.
There will also be discussion on shared cyber security and setting up alternative supply chains for semi-conductors, aimed at breaking China’s stranglehold on the market.
The wide scope reflects a concerted deepening and widening of the Quad partnership, whose leaders had not previously met in person over its 14 years of existence.
Its full name is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and the four members defined its role in a virtual summit in March this year as “a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific”, and a “rules-based maritime order”.
Both phrases are euphemisms for confronting Chinese coercive tactics in the South and East China seas, which have included grabbing islands and atolls, threatening ships and rattling sabres across the Taiwan Strait. China is not mentioned by name in the Aukus agreement, Biden’s UN address or in most Quad statements to perpetuate the pretence that “this is not aimed at one particular country,” as US officials continually insist.
It is a claim no one believes, least of all Beijing, but it is designed to play down the combative side of the defence agreements and leave the door open to changed Chinese behaviour in the region.
But Beijing cannot have failed to spot the significant growth of military cooperation in the region. The US has held extensive military exercises with India this year. And while the nuclear submarines in the Aukus agreement will take up to 20 years to materialise, it provides for more immediate sharing of AI and quantum computational technology, which is increasingly the key to Indo-Pacific rivalry.
“The image we have of two ships exchanging shells has nothing to do with how we fight modern naval warfare,” said Bruce Jones, author of a new book about naval competition, To Rule the Waves.
“We are talking about ballistic missile destroyers, which are hubs in an extraordinarily sophisticated network of sensors, on land, sea and air and satellites, putting together a vast array of systems knowledge on the Chinese side and on our side. That is the work of some of the most advanced software in the world.”
Aukus comes five years after the US, UK and Japanese navies signed their own, less heralded, cooperation agreement. And in July, the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, visited Manila and persuaded the Philippine leader, Rodrigo Duterte, to keep a bilateral defence pact in place, allowing for large-scale combat exercises.
Biden’s approach is the latest turn in a US China policy under successive administrations that has reflected the characters of the presidents involved but also the evolution of Chinese assertiveness into blunter forms.
In Barack Obama’s first term, the administration’s policy was still largely based on the assumption that China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and integration into the global economy would soften the nature of the regime. The rise of Xi Jinping made it clear that would not happen. The second Obama term was consequently supposed to bring a “pivot to Asia”, the face-off against China, but it never quite materialised as imagined, in large part because of Middle Eastern chaos in the wake of the Arab spring, the rise of the Islamic State and Obama’s reluctant decision to order a surge in Afghanistan.
Trump made trade disputes with China a centerpiece of both his foreign and domestic policies but it was not part of a broader strategy. Trump burned bridges with allies like South Korea and Japan, screamed at the then Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, in their first telephone call and pulled the US out of talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Biden has tried to draw lessons from both predecessors, focusing his approach on building alliances, ignoring calls from all sides to stay in Afghanistan and following the Washington maxim “personnel is policy”. In the White House, Kurt Campbell, the leading advocate of the “pivot to Asia”, has been installed as “Asia tsar” with a staff of political appointees that dwarfed other departments, particularly the European director’s office.
At the state department, Foreign Policy has reported that a “China House” is to be established, potentially adding between 20 and 30 staff members to the bureau watching Beijing’s global moves.
Gregory Poling, senior fellow for south-east Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the short-term aim of America’s growing network of partnerships and alliances was to deter further efforts of Chinese coercion against its smaller neighbours.
“The long-term strategy is to leverage an increasingly large global coalition to try to impose diplomatic costs, in the hopes that if China sees that its behavior on these fronts is undermining its global goals it will change course,” Poling said.
So far at least, there are no significant signs of that strategy succeeding.
“I’m seeing very little evidence of that right now,” said Bonny Lin, director of the CSIS China Power Project. “China is responding to the Quad in its own way, using a cold war mentality, viewing Quad as very much geared toward confrontation with China, and as a result actually moving in a direction that’s not productive.”
For example, Xi has made it clear to the UN secretary general, António Guterres, that cooperation on Covid and climate will be withheld in the hostile environment the Chinese blame on Aukus and the Quad.
Poling argues that given that the alternatives are either conflict or ceding the Pacific to China and abandoning US regional allies, Biden has little choice but to pursue his current path.
“That path is getting narrower by the day,” he said. “It’s much smaller today than it was 10 years ago but I don’t think it’s entirely gone. And it’s really the only option we have.”