THE RAPID spread of COVID-19 has caused cataclysmic disruptions in the global order and severely tested the ability of national governments to cope with this seemingly unstoppable and deadly enemy. The pandemic has subtly, but overwhelmingly, reinforced the notion that great power competition in the international system will continue to dominate geopolitics long after the virus subsides, and the world returns to a new state of normalcy. China’s brazen attempts to capitalize on the resulting chaos have deepened some fault lines and exposed others. Rather than pushing the world’s two largest economies into a unified front to fight the virus bilaterally or via a larger grouping such as the G20, the pandemic has further intensified an already tense relationship between the United States and China. Richard Fontaine highlighted this new dynamic in Foreign Policy: “COVID-19 is becoming one more feature of great-power competition, rather than an exception to it.”
Even seemingly ironclad areas of symbiosis in the bilateral relationship have been characterized by a zero-sum mentality. Reported attempts by Chinese cyber actors to hack American research centers and pharmaceutical companies in an attempt to speed up domestic coronavirus vaccine development are only the latest salvo in the increasingly tense conflict. This new phase of contention led historian Niall Ferguson to double down on previous characterizations of the relationship as Cold War II. The implications of failing to counter Chinese aggression were recently underscored by retired general and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster:
The party has no intention of playing by the rules associated with international law, trade, or commerce … Without effective pushback from the United States and like-minded nations, China will become even more aggressive in promoting its statist economy and authoritarian political model.
Coronavirus may have weakened China’s soft power, but it has assuredly not reduced its desires for regional, and eventually, global hegemony. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has used its extensive domestic manufacturing capacity to export goodwill in the form of essential ventilators and personal protective equipment. From Latin America to Eastern Europe, China has worked to flip the narrative that, rather than the source, it is the world’s savior from the virus. These tactics are part of a broader strategy designed to exploit a perceived void in American global leadership.
Beijing’s attempt to turn the crisis into a geopolitical windfall has significant implications beyond Sino-U.S. relations. From New Delhi, Canberra, and Tokyo, the region’s most influential democracies are scrambling to deal with the social, economic, and political impacts of the virus. As China moves incessantly toward hegemony, these liberal democracies must band together to check the CCP’s repressive and totalitarian vision for the Indo-Pacific region.
The Trump administration announced its grand strategy to meet the China challenge in November 2017 as a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” A November 2019 report from the State Department outlined the steps America will take in support of this strategy, and specifically highlighted how India, Australia, Japan, and the United States “elevated their Quadrilateral Consultation to the ministerial level in September 2019.” While this move is timely, the Quad must move beyond dialogue to security cooperation. Whether it remains Donald Trump, or transitions to Joe Biden, the next U.S. president needs to operationalize this vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific by bolstering America’s commitment to the region—the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is the best place to start. We recommend this pledge include a name change to the Indo-Pacific Security Pact (IPSP) codified with a charter and grounded upon securing an Indo-Pacific that is free, fair, peaceful, and prosperous and buttressed by security cooperation and military exercises.
THE QUADRILATERAL Security Dialogue represents an essential and timely convergence of both national values and strategic interests. Based on geography alone, the Quad aligns allies and partners in vastly distant areas of the Indo-Pacific region who are all simultaneously under pressure from an expansive and increasingly aggressive People’s Republic of China (PRC). Geography aside, the Quad nations share a commitment to democratic principles, individual freedom, and governmental transparency. Thus, the Quad represents the rarest coalition of partners—nations aligned by interests, political values, and adherence to international rules and norms that are physically arrayed to counter the sprawling Chinese threat. As the State Department report acknowledges, the Trump administration’s vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific is very closely aligned with similar strategies being pursued by India, Australia, and Japan. While these approaches do not name Beijing as the impetus, countering growing Chinese influence is the clear goal.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, each member of the Quad had separate and distinct flashpoints in its relationship with China. Chinese inroads into both Sri Lanka and the Maldives via the Belt and Road Initiative and a renewed standoff near a shared border with Bhutan greatly alarmed Indian policymakers and military officials. Australia was left stunned and reactionary in response to massive increases in Chinese investment in Oceania, an area referred to as “our patch” by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In the East China Sea, Japanese and Chinese warships square off daily over the Senkaku Islands. Finally, China’s economic, military, and diplomatic resurgence threatens America’s post-WWII supremacy in the Asia-Pacific.
Written directly in response to the first Indian military deaths along the Line of Actual Control in decades, a June 2020 op-ed in the Hindustan Times meshed lingering bilateral issues with new concerns over China’s handling of and behavior during the coronavirus pandemic:
At the macro-level, it is clear that China—under President Xi Jinping—believes the time has come to assert its power on the international stage. This has translated into China violating international norms and law (South China Sea); engaging in predatory, almost colonial, economic practices (Belt and Road Initiative); being brazen, rather than introspective and transparent, about its role in causing crises with global impact (the coronavirus pandemic); encroaching upon the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors (Japan and India); intervening in the politics of democracies (from European nations to Australia); exporting its own ideological worldview to other countries (especially in South Asia); and becoming even more repressive at home (Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong).
The author’s mention of China’s “violating of international norms and law” in the South China Sea is especially salient given China’s April creation of “two administrative districts covering the Spratly and Paracel” island chains. Speculation abounds that China will exploit the global coronavirus confusion to announce a long-anticipated Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea. While America is not specifically named, it has an interest in all of the aforementioned topics. Therefore, the United States, along with the leading Indo-Pacific republics, should institutionalize “the Quad,” as it is known, to send a message to Beijing that its attempts to remake the liberal, rules-based order in its authoritarian image will not go unanswered. Late senator and then-presidential candidate John McCain advocated for such an approach in 2007: “As president, I will seek to institutionalize the new quadrilateral security partnership among the major Asia-Pacific democracies: Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.” This was not an empty presidential promise, instead the late senator saw the importance of regional democracies balancing the exponential rise, and threat, of the People’s Republic of China under the Communist Party.
SINCE A 1962 border war, India and China have been warily content to continue the status quo lest they get sucked into a more massive conflict that neither party wanted. China’s rapid economic growth and subsequent military modernization have allowed it to quietly change the balance of military power at the border. As the Economist has written:
To the east, China’s defense budget is now triple India’s. New roads and railways into Tibet allow the People’s Liberation Army to move troops to its disputed border with India quickly, while Indian forces are trapped in narrow valleys below.
The Doklam standoff near the tri-border region with Bhutan in the summer of 2017 was a wakeup call both for Narendra Modi and the Indian defense establishment. Likewise, the February 2019 terrorist attack against an Indian military convoy in Indian-administered Kashmir and the subsequent downing of an Indian fighter jet by Pakistan were glaring reminders for the Indian political and military elite of the security implications of a burgeoning China-Pakistan relationship.
At the outset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, India was initially spared from the high infection rates and fatalities that have struck parts of Europe and the United States. Yet as of May 16, it surpassed China in total number of coronavirus cases and on July 17, India surged past one million infections. These sharp increases come in spite of a strict nationwide lockdown that has taken a disproportionate toll on the nation’s large migrant population and those living in extreme poverty. An already overstretched healthcare system combined with some of the world’s highest pollution levels has led one of the country’s leading virologists to predict an “avalanche of an epidemic.” Amid the chaos, the Indian government has looked warily toward its neighbor to the northeast. Tanvi Madan, the director of the Brookings Institution’s India Project, has described this concern mainly in the context of China seeking to take advantage of the crisis in three ways: first, attempting to acquire vulnerable India companies; second, increasing its influence in India’s neighborhood; third, portraying its system and global and regional leadership as more effective than others.