Building U.S.–Asian Teamwork Against China
‘The Quad’ must be a genuine alliance instead of an ineffectual talk shop.
New administrations that differ in partisan orientation from their predecessors have a habit of reorienting American foreign policy. George W. Bush, until September 11, 2001, planned to shift America’s focus back to great-power competition, even dispatching Donald Rumsfeld, at that point the administration’s most prominent statesman, to Moscow to negotiate with Putin. This marked a distinct break from Mr. Clinton’s liberal interventionism.
Mr. Obama reversed virtually every substantive foreign-policy choice of the previous eight years, immediately pursuing a “reset” with Russia, a drawdown in Iraq, a grand tour of the Arab world, and soon after a détente with Iran.
Mr. Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords and the Iran nuclear agreement. He also made substantive changes to a four-decade-long U.S. effort to make China a “stakeholder” in the international order.
Even more striking at the partisan level has been the variation in commitment to “anti-war” causes. Democratic support for the anti-war movement virtually evaporated in 2009 despite, lest we forget, multiple attempts to impeach Mr. Bush over his conduct of the Iraq War. Republicans are equally guilty: Challenges to the constitutionality of Mr. Obama’s military actions in Syria and Iraq vanished on January 20, 2017. If Mr. Biden’s recent Syria strike demonstrates anything, it is that politics has remained remarkably normal. Apart from fringe progressives — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her vanguard cohort — there will be no opposition from Democrats to executive military action.
It is, however, encouraging to identify an emerging continuity between Mr. Biden and his predecessor. The Biden administration seems committed to maintaining “the Quad” — the Asian security forum that includes the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India. The Quad stemmed from efforts to coordinate relief after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Although a formal security relationship seemed imminent in 2007, American, Indian, and Australian policy shifts buried the idea for nearly a decade. The Trump administration resurrected the Quad in November 2017 through ASEAN, building off America’s joint naval exercises with the three potential members. The Quad’s high point came in October 2020, when its four members participated in Exercise MALABAR, traditionally a bilateral Indo-American affair.
Moreover, other American allies have begun to recognize the link between the Indo-Pacific balance and their own interests. In February, France deployed a nuclear-powered attack submarine to the South China Sea, and it plans to deploy an amphibious assault ship and frigate in preparation for U.S.-Japanese military exercises in May. Germany will deploy a frigate to the Indo-Pacific this fall. The Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group will deploy to the Indo-Pacific this year, marking the first British capital-ship deployment east of the Suez in a generation.
Mr. Biden has shown little interest in confronting China in his first weeks in office, but he has signaled his willingness to maintain the Quad. Moreover, talk exists of expanding the Quad by incorporating South Korea as a “Quad Plus” member.
China, of course, has signaled its displeasure over the Quad. Like a spoiled child denied sweets, it finds it inconceivable that three of the regional powers with the most to lose from Chinese expansionism deem it reasonable to coordinate with the great power most opposed to China’s hegemonic ambitions. China’s ire, however, does point to a critical truth: The Quad is not a framework for political coordination, intended to uphold diplomatically a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” It is the beginning of a formal alliance, intended to contain Chinese aggression and preserve the interests of America’s allies.
This alliance, if formalized, would be long overdue. China has posed a demonstrable threat to the interests of virtually every Indo-Pacific polity since at least the early 2010s, when it began building and militarizing islands in the South and East China Seas. Since then, it has consolidated its internal control in Hong Kong and East Turkestan by shifting from an incremental approach to the naked employment of force, staging a coup in Hong Kong and conducting genocide in East Turkestan. It has increased its pressure on India, instigating three border incidents since 2017. And with Xi Jinping’s ascent to paramount leadership, it has conducted the most significant great-power conventional-arms build-up since before World War II.
Given China’s objectives, expanding the Quad to include other regional partners would bolster U.S. interests and Indo-Pacific stability by increasing deterrence credibility. China outclasses any individual Indo-Pacific adversary, even Japan with its sophisticated Western-style technology and India with its massive conventional ground forces. No nation wishes for a long war — at least, no nation with an eye towards its political survival. But China is in a uniquely vulnerable position. It still relies on overseas petrochemical imports and critical raw materials for its industries. And while some of China supports the Party’s objective of “national rejuvenation” — that is, weltmacht at any cost — it is likely that most of its citizens, with the memory of Maoist insanity still burned into their minds, tolerate Party rule in return for economic and social stability. A long war would destroy both benefits, exposing the party-state’s true nature.
An alliance that links major Pacific powers directly with the United States and each other would eliminate the possibility that China could conduct a fait accompli against an isolated polity. Adding formal military cooperation to this partnership would bolster deterrence further by allowing smaller regional players to maximize their capabilities while supporting the American combat fleet.
South Korea is now torn between China and the United States. Its robust economic links with the PRC have allowed its elites to present North Korea as the sole threat to its existence, leaving its population blind to the risks that a Chinese-dominated Pacific would pose to any liberal polity. But South Korea will not be China’s direct target. The ROK’s industrial and technological capacity make it more valuable as a partner or subject than as a conquered prize, particularly if the reunification chimera can be captured. Its affiliation with the Quad would be a diplomatic and strategic triumph: China would be deprived of a neutral potential partner, and its military capabilities could be joined with those of Japan in the northwestern Pacific.
Taiwan, however, is far more important. The party-state is obsessed with it. Taiwan’s geographic location allows it to disrupt any force transfer between the northeastern and southwestern Pacific, preventing the PLA from concentrating its combat power. It is the critical link in the “First Island Chain,” which runs from the Aleutians through Japan to the Philippines and bars China from unimpeded access to the central Pacific. Its existence proves that the Chinese people need not compromise their freedom for their security.
Today’s Taiwan emerged from the same political cataclysm as its Communist counterpart. But it successfully transitioned from a military dictatorship, replete with despotism’s standard trappings — secret police, controls on political expression, and extreme state involvement in economic planning — to a multiparty capitalist democracy that guarantees individual and political rights and provides its citizens with a standard of living equivalent to that of any Western European or North American.
Thus China’s obsession with Taiwan. The PLA’s increased probing of Taiwanese airspace is a prelude to escalation, much as the Party’s soft maneuvering in East Turkestan and Hong Kong preceded the use of force.
Incorporating Taiwan into the Quad, as either an observer, an affiliated Quad Plus state, or a full member, would link the ROC to China’s other regional adversaries. No longer would China need to calculate whether the U.S. would involve itself in a Taiwanese contingency. Instead, Japan, Australia, and India would be able to exert political pressure, with the assurance of U.S. involvement during any escalation. Moreover, a non-Taiwanese flashpoint — for example, one in the South China Sea or along the Sino–Indian border — could now entail a broader Pacific conflict.
It is here that a central issue arises. Is the Quad simply a political-security forum for powers committed to a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”? No threat to Pacific freedom and openness exists other than China. But construing the Quad as a purely diplomatic/political tool, rather than an explicit alliance designed to counter Chinese aggression, effectively nullifies its potential benefits. It would be as if the United States insisted in 1955 that NATO was a political forum comprised of like-minded liberal regimes with no common interest, instead of being the backbone of a Soviet-containment strategy.
Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the director of its Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as a deputy undersecretary of the Navy. Harry Halem is a research assistant at the Hudson Institute and a graduate student at the London School of Economics.