As President Joe Biden seeks to shore up ties with allies in Asia, he’s reshaping the message to avoid spooking them about America’s intentions when it comes to China.
Australia, Japan and India all fret about Beijing’s expanding economic and military heft, and the first meeting on Friday of leaders of the group known as the Quad will be a show of unity against Beijing. Even so, they are wary of being pulled by the U.S. into a purely anti-China bloc, especially given the trade ties each has with the world’s second-biggest economy.
So the new U.S. administration is calibrating its outreach to the Quad to emphasize the opportunity to work collectively on a variety of broader issues, including combating the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.
The White House under Donald Trump eschewed collaboration on trade and the environment and focused on confronting China directly with tariffs, sanctions and a beefed up military presence in the Pacific. While Biden is set to keep a hard line on Beijing, seen by the move to ban the export of 5G components to Huawei Technologies Co., the administration is seeking to avoid the perception it’s only interested in other countries in the region for their help on that.
It comes as the U.S. kicks off a flurry of diplomatic engagements with Asia, including the virtual Quad meeting. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are also traveling to North Asia early next week to reassure Japan and South Korea of longstanding security agreements, before Austin goes onto India.
Those talks are likely to set the tone for a meeting next week between top diplomats from America and China — the highest level engagement since Biden took office.
In addition, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga plans to visit the U.S. in the first half of April and hold what is expected to be the first face-to-face summit with a foreign leader for Biden, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters in Tokyo on Friday.
I will meet on March 18 with People’s Republic of China Director Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi in Alaska to engage on a range of issues, including those where we have deep disagreements.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) March 10, 2021
A senior official in India’s foreign ministry said Quad members will discuss a joint financing plan to boost India’s Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing capacity, including shots that can work against newer strains. The official said the goal would be to better share supplies and offer a counterpoint to China’s own efforts at vaccine diplomacy in the region.
The program could increase manufacturing capability in India by as many as a billion doses by 2022, according to two U.S. officials who requested anonymity in speaking before the meeting. A vaccine expert working group would coordinate implementation across the Pacific. But the deal probably wouldn’t include donations of shots already procured by the U.S., which is focusing on vaccinating its citizens first.
“A vaccine initiative could show that, look, this is a positive contribution to the region,” said Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “This isn’t just about containing China, this is a value add that will benefit a number of countries and show what pooled capabilities can do.”
The White House says the administration hopes to use Friday’s talks — which are expected to start at 8:30 a.m. in Washington and last around 90 minutes — to explore multiple areas of potential cooperation. Still, Biden’s team left little doubt that the meeting is intended as a signal to China.
“That President Biden has made this one of his earliest multilateral engagements speaks to the importance we place on close cooperation with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
Asked about the Quad meeting, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called on countries to refrain from creating blocs. Exchanges between governments should create understanding and avoid targeting third parties, he said during a regular briefing in Beijing.
For Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, leader of the most China-dependent developed economy, the summit is even more important given China punished his nation with trade reprisals after he called for an independent investigation into the origins of the pandemic. Morrison told reporters the meeting will “see the Quad now move to a whole new level, something Australia has been championing for many years.”
Limits to Cooperation
But it may also provide a glimpse of the challenges the Biden administration will face trying to get allies on the same page on non-economic issues. Even with border disputes in the Himalayas and concerns about China’s modernizing armed forces, India has been reluctant to make the Quad a military grouping, while Australia remains hesitant to risk its already frayed economic ties with China.
“There will always be overlapping interests and areas of mutual concern, and the Quad can focus on vaccine access or infrastructure financing in Southeast Asia as examples of this,” said Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat who is the director of the Lowy Institute’s public opinion and foreign policy program. “But on thornier security questions, particularly that directly relate to China, it is hard to imagine the four coming to shared positions.”
Aman Thakker, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that caution may fade as China further flexes its muscles in the region. The border tensions between China and India last year almost spilled into outright conflict, for example.
For now, Quad leaders are likely to focus on other issues, according to Ryan Hass, a fellow at Brookings who previously oversaw China affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.
“Implicit in the structure of the agenda will be a recognition that the U.S. and others will enjoy greater attraction and influence by delivering solutions to problems than by presenting opposition to China,” he said. “If the coordinated efforts of the Quad countries spurs China to up its efforts to deliver solutions to regional challenges, that’s all to the better.”