Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 20 May 2021

 China, irked by the Quad, faces up to a wary world

By Ishaan Tharoor
May 19 at 12:00 pm Taiwan Time
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Tuesday’s House human rights commission hearing as a joint congressional hearing. The article has been corrected.
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President Biden meets virtually with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia at the White House in March. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
A curious diplomatic incident happened last week in Bangladesh. During a briefing with reporters, China’s ambassador in Dhaka, Li Jiming, warned his host nation that it would “substantially damage” its ties with China if it considered warming up to the “Quad” — a burgeoning geopolitical grouping of major powers involving the United States, India, Japan and Australia.
Bangladesh maintains a careful distance in its foreign policy, eager not to antagonize either of its large neighbors, India and China. So its officials were perturbed by the unusual threat. The country’s foreign minister described Li’s remarks as “aggressive” and “very unfortunate.” The Chinese ambassador backtracked, saying he was speaking off the cuff in response to a journalist’s question.
But the episode, suggested Indian geopolitical commentator C. Raja Mohan, was indicative of a wider — and somewhat new — phenomenon of Chinese diplomats bullying their colleagues abroad. “The new ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ confronts head-on any criticism of China in the public sphere. They lecture host governments and don’t always show up when ‘summoned,’ by foreign offices,” he wrote, adding that “India’s neighbours have long resented the imperious style of the Indian ambassadors often dubbed as ‘pro-consuls.’ Chinese envoys now seem eager to inherit the dubious mantle.”
If that’s the case, China’s diplomats will only get busier. Both in Asia and afar, China is facing a world that’s growing more wary of its reach and fearful of its ambitions. Its maritime adventurism in the South China Sea prompted the foreign minister of the Philippines to tell Beijing to “get the f--- out” on Twitter earlier this month. Its feuding with European diplomats and officials plunged a landmark E.U.-China investment deal into deep freeze. Its ongoing multi-front row with Australia is now being seen as a test case — and cautionary tale — of China’s powers of coercion in wealthy nations.

The advance of the Quad as a geopolitical bloc has particularly irked China. Picking up the anti-China baton left by his predecessor, President Biden convened a summit of the grouping’s four leaders soon after he took office and may hope to build it into a genuine regional alliance. Beijing sees the Quad, which was first convened by Japan in 2007, purely as a vehicle to thwart Chinese interests. This week, China’s ambassador to Japan described the grouping to Kyodo News with rhetoric routinely invoked by Chinese diplomats, accusing the Quad’s members of harboring a “Cold War mentality” and clinging to “100 percent outdated” views of the world.
“We all know what kind of mechanism the Quad is,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a recent news conference. “China opposes certain countries’ efforts to form an exclusive clique, portray China as a challenge, and sow discord between regional countries and China.”
But diplomats engaged in the work of the Quad reject this characterization. “The Quad is not about an embryonic defense arrangement directed toward any country, including China,” Koji Tomita, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, told Today’s WorldView in an interview earlier this month.
“It’s a vehicle to realize our shared values and principles in the broader Indo-Pacific,” Tomita added, gesturing to the democratic character of the nations and recent practical commitments they have made, including a deal on boosting vaccine supply. “I think this is a way to demonstrate that our way of doing things works.”
In the United States, anti-China sentiment is now the source of rare bipartisan consensus. A House human rights commission hearing on Tuesday saw lawmakers in both parties denounce China for what they characterize as genocide against the Uyghurs of Xinjiang and call for various forms of boycott against the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said American politicians, analysts and activists need to find new solutions to help “end the oppressive behavior of China against so many.”
Such rhetoric is unthinkable for a Japanese diplomat. “The challenge posed by China is a very complex one,” Tomita said. “China is not the one-dimensional military power that the Soviet Union once was during the Cold War.”

That’s a recognition both of China’s economic clout on the world stage and Japan’s deep interests in China’s huge domestic market. “Japan has proved adept at balancing both its historical alliance with the United States and the economic imperative to sustain strong ties with China,” wrote Tobias Harris in Foreign Affairs, adding that “Japanese business leaders, bureaucrats, and politicians will continue to keep the channels of communication with Beijing open in the belief” that a stable China-Japan relationship is a regional boon.
Other analysts in the United States take a more hawkish view. “No state is unaware of its economic ties with China nor the fact that the world’s second-most powerful nation will undoubtedly play a major global role,” wrote Michael Auslin, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “However, it is Beijing’s policies, not American nefariousness, that is causing an international reaction.”
Tomita tried to put the newfound aggression of Chinese diplomats in context. “It’s a sign of confidence in what [China] has achieved over the years,” he said. “As the second-largest economy in the world, it finds itself in a position to influence global politics.” At the same time, Tomita said, the Chinese have “accumulated a set of grievances about how this international system is managed.”
The Biden administration has decided to more or less maintain the same atmosphere of confrontation with Beijing first brought about by President Donald Trump, who had his own set of grievances about how China exploited the international trading system for its benefit and to the detriment of American interests. But critics claimed Trump’s bruising and erratic approach risked alienating allies and weakening U.S. diplomatic initiatives.
Biden has worked more carefully in the first months of his presidency to act in concert with Asian allies. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was his first official guest at the White House in April; on Friday, he hosts South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
“There’s one thing this administration gets absolutely right, which is their readiness to engage allies and partners in pursuit of their policy,” Tomita said.

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