President Biden will step up his efforts to counterbalance China through coordination with like-minded countries on Friday when he takes part in a first-of-its-kind summit with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan.
The four nations have cooperated on and off since the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 in an informal grouping known as the "Quad," short for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
The group's activity, including regional military exercises, has expanded since 2017, but Quad heads of state have never held a summit. Analysts say this week's virtual meeting reflects mounting concerns about China's growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region and cohesion around the idea that joint pushback is needed.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this week the fact that Biden — barely 50 days into the job — "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."
Reports suggest Quad leaders may announce financing agreements to boost India's manufacturing of coronavirus vaccines, part of what some see as a Quad response to Beijing's efforts to score diplomatic points by offering made-in-China vaccines to the developing world.
A range of other issues, including trade and climate change, are also likely to be discussed.
Senior Quad officials have met several times in recent years, and the four countries' militaries have held joint exercises in the Indo-Pacific region. The decision to hold a leaders' summit now is a clear "escalation" aimed squarely at Beijing, says Lavina Lee, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Australia's Macquarie University.
"It's a way of saying to China: OK, we started the Quad, we were hoping to send you a signal that we had concerns, and we were hoping that you would respond by stepping back from some of the worst aspects of of your expansionist kind of behavior," she says. "And what has happened since 2017 is that there's been no stepping back of China's behavior. In fact, it's escalating, not deescalating."
In recent months, relations between China and Quad countries have plummeted.
China imposed what analysts see as politically motivated sanctions on a range of Australian commodities, including barley, lobster and wine, after Australian leaders called for an open investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Japan has been alarmed in recent months by a rising number of incursions by Chinese military ships and aircraft over disputed waters in the East China Sea.
China-India tensions have simmered since last summer, when the nuclear-armed neighbors saw their first deadly clash in decades along the world's longest unmarked border. Twenty Indian troops were killed, as were four Chinese.
"The behavior of China is forcing a more robust and intense relationship between India and the U.S. — and India and the other two countries, Australia and Japan — than any of them would have designed or planned," says Varghese George, deputy resident editor of The Hindu newspaper in New Delhi and author of Open Embrace: India-US Ties in a Divided World.
"The current Indian political establishment is extremely, acutely aware of the Chinese threat, and is experiencing it as we speak," George says.
As a pillar of its China policy, the Biden administration has vowed to deepen coordination with partners and reengage with multilateral organizations.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to Japan and South Korea next week to "reaffirm the United States' commitment to strengthening our alliances," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
Austin will travel on to India. Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will meanwhile meet with China's top two foreign policy officials in Alaska.
Despite breaking new ground with this week's leaders' summit, there are limits to what the Quad can achieve, analysts say, and whether it can grow into a more formal security grouping along the lines of NATO.
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus, says Japanese politicians "like to talk tough on China ... But in terms of institutionalizing the Quad along the lines of NATO, I just don't see that happening. I don't think there's stomach in Tokyo to do that. So the Quad, I think, for the foreseeable future, is going to be an interesting concept, a vision, a strategy, but I don't think it's going to translate quickly into some sort of a NATO arrangement."
In a paper published on Wednesday, Evan Feigenbaum and James Schwemlein of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argue that the Quad "has suffered from a lack of purpose and a lack of definition."
"If other countries in Asia view the Quad as little more than a talk shop to discuss the looming risks posed by China's rise while occasionally holding joint military exercises, it is unlikely that other countries will see its utility or view it as a model for their own choices and conduct," they write.
"To lead, the Quad countries must demonstrate in deed, not just word, that they are making major contributions to solving the larger economic, transnational, and environmental challenges that preoccupy nearly everyone else in the Indo-Pacific."
Lauren Frayer contributed reporting from Mumbai and Anthony Kuhn contributed reporting from Seoul.
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