What if China and America came together?

Four against China: The "Quad" could become an Asian NATO

It all actually started in the months after the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004, when Japan, Australia, India and the USA spontaneously joined forces to provide emergency aid. More than 40,000 troops and humanitarian workers were deployed in groups of four. In addition, they organized helicopters, ships and transport planes through the so-called "Tsunami Core Group". Originally, this happened without much geostrategic ulterior motives, but simply "because they had the resources and the will to act", as Marc Grossman, then US representative in the group, put it.

Around 16 years later, last Friday, high-ranking representatives of the four countries met again, virtually due to the corona. The "Quad" group (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) has developed into an informal alliance between Japan, India, Australia and the USA, which advocates a "free and open Indo-Pacific". She sees herself as a "security diamond", as Japan's ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe put it, and as an advocate of democracies in Asia. And that implies, if not officially, to build a counterweight to China.

First USA-China meeting

So it is no coincidence that the first quad meeting in years took place right now. On Thursday, for the first time since Joe Biden's inauguration, high-ranking representatives of the USA and China, namely US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, will meet in Alaska. In the run-up, Blinken is also touring Japan and South Korea, on his first trip abroad in office.

Relations between the two world powers are frosty. Biden's predecessor Donald Trump pushed an aggressive agenda critical of China, and Biden now wants to continue this, albeit in a new guise.

And that's where the quad, which was planned over ten years ago, comes in handy. The idea actually goes back to Japan's ex-Prime Minister Abe, who wanted to deepen the successful cooperation after the tsunami. As early as 2007 he spoke of an "Asian Arch of Democracy", and the first meeting took place in Manila that same year.

Alliance without teeth

But the initiative never really took off. Australia soon withdrew under China-friendly Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and Abe's successor did not want China to step too much on his toes either. That changed in 2017. Trump was US President, and Abe was back in the government chair in Japan. China had greatly increased its influence in the region in the previous ten years; partly, so the international criticism, by pressure and by bringing neighboring states into debt traps.

"We will fight back if necessary, if China uses coercion and aggression," said US Secretary of State Blinken these days from Tokyo. Rules instead of coercion, democracy instead of autocracy in Asia - the announcement of the renewed four-party alliance is clear.

Common vaccination strategy in Asia

The interests diverge in detail. For Japan and Australia, the clashes in the South China Sea have top priority, for India, of course, the Indian Ocean. Recently, however, the four states have been working on a joint distribution strategy for vaccines in Asia in order to stand up to China's vaccination diplomacy. With regard to Myanmar, the four of them issued a joint statement calling for the "restoration of democracy".

In 2020 there was a first joint military exercise, which fueled speculation that the alliance could develop into a kind of "Asian NATO". Trump's Deputy Foreign Minister Stephen Biegun had already driven this vision. Last year he set the goal that other countries could join in the future, for example South Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam. Great Britain, which left the EU, also signaled interest in the alliance in January.

Sri Lanka: Not a cold war, but a "cool war"

However, other countries in the region are skeptical of the quad. Sri Lanka, whose rulers are considered China-friendly, expressed concern about the militarization in the Indian Ocean: The Quad could instigate "if not a cold, then at least a cool war" in the Indian Ocean, said the Sinhalese foreign minister last fall. Because if the Quad is upgrading, China will have to follow suit.

Beijing has naturally been watching the initiatives with suspicion for years. Chinese diplomats repeatedly found sharp words against the alliance. Two weeks ago the state "Global Times" therefore spoke neither of an "Asian NATO" nor of a "diamond": the Quad is a "club of empty talk". (Anna Sawerthal, March 17, 2021)