In the well of the House chamber during his first address to Congress, President Joe Biden declared “I told [President Xi Jinping] we welcome the competition, we are not looking for conflict, but I made absolutely clear that we will defend America's interests across the board. (...) I also told the president of China we will maintain a strong military presence in the Pacific, just as we do in NATO and Europe, not to start a conflict, but to prevent one.”
Six weeks earlier, President Biden held a virtual summit with the leaders of three other democratic nations: Australia, Japan, and India. In addition to the United States, these countries are known as “The Quad,” or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The Quad is an informal alliance between these democracies in the Indo-Pacific region, formed in the wake of the devastating 2004 tsunami that killed over 200,000 people across the region. In recent years, these democracies have been engaging more frequently on issues such as trade, defense, and security cooperation. Their primary, though rarely officially acknowledged, purpose is to counter China and its increasing regional strength. Notably, the joint statement titled “The Spirit of the Quad” from the Quad leaders themselves mentions “the East and South China Seas,” “the region,” and “the Indo-Pacific” without explicitly naming China as their primary purpose for organizing.
The People’s Republic of China is not a democracy, but an authoritarian regime with little to no respect for personal freedoms or civil liberties anywhere in its system. Recent unwelcome behavior includes the genocide of Uighur Muslims and the suppression of political autonomy including protest in Hong Kong. China has demonstrated aggressive behavior at sea, such as its occupation of the South China Sea and the building of artificial islands with the intent of expanding regional military presence. As China continues this aggressive behavior and seeks to expand its regional influence, the Quad has bound more closely together, going so far as to conduct joint military exercises in the region.
While some have called for a “Pacific NATO'' to counter China akin to the formation of NATO in Europe decades ago to counter the Soviet Union, for now the Quad is likely to remain an informal alliance. Current arrangements consist of joint military exercises, intelligence sharing agreements, and gestures such as the four leaders sitting together at the G20 Summit pointedly away from Chinese President Xi Jinping. The US and Japan also joined Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam in condemning China’s aggression on the seas, exemplifying the flexibility of potential allies the US can ally with on regional security.
UVA’s own Dr. Phil Potter suggested earlier this year that the US and its allies will likely have to accept some form of a Chinese “sphere of influence” where Beijing has an amount of regional autonomy to flex their strength and shape neighbors to their desire. This regional sphere of influence also impacts how durable of an alliance the Quad could possibly be. Japan has been forced to find a precarious balance between joining the US and democratic allies in remaining tough on China while not isolating itself from a valuable trade partner and neighbor. Australia had historically been hesitant to push back hard against China for economic reasons, but capital city Canberra has stepped up its condemnations of China in recent years. This includes a recent statement that a potential conflict between China and Australia over the fate of Taiwan should not “be discounted.”
India itself was recently downgraded to a “partially free” democracy by Freedom House, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been increasingly criticized for taking an autocratic Hindu nationalist bent. In addition to the illiberal trend of political freedoms in India, entering into a NATO-like military alliance raises the question of whether the US would be obligated to enter a potential India/Pakistan conflict out of treaty obligations. Questions about NATO’s purpose and benefits are as loud as they have been since the founding of the Alliance. Do we want to start over with a formal military alliance in the Indo-Pacific?
Americans should care deeply about our relationship with China, not only to be aware of potential conflict zones where US military personnel may be sent but also how our relationship with the world’s other largest national economy is evolving into the next part of this century. We also have important commitments to our allies around the world and the values we share with other liberal democracies that believe in free societies and individual freedoms. The United States should not lock itself into a specific alliance with a set number of countries in the region, but engage with any and all partners who share our concerns about China’s expanding influence and aggressive behavior.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.