The US-China confrontation looks like the Cold War
President Biden hosted a summit meeting on Friday that could prove to be a turning point – but if you weren’t watching you might have missed it.
The meeting brought together the leaders of a deliberately low-profile group called “the Quad”: the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
US officials downplayed the session’s importance, describing it as “an informal gathering of leading Indo-Pacific democracies.”
China was not fooled. Its diplomats have spent months denouncing the Quad as a Cold War-style alliance aimed at containing Beijing’s rise as a dominant power in Asia.
And they are right.
Biden and his fellow Quad leaders have never publicly uttered the word “China,” but the Quad is all about containment. It seeks to blunt China’s growing influence, deter it from launching military adventures, and prevent it from forcing the United States and other countries out of growing Asian markets.
The Quad is not a military alliance, at least formally. A Biden collaborator who briefed reporters ahead of the summit was careful to make this point three times in 20 minutes.
But last month, four Marines staged a massive military exercise in the Philippine Sea east of China. The participants were the same four: the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
All four are democracies. Specifically, all four were alarmed that China wielding economic and military might to achieve its ends – from seizing islands and building bases in disputed territory in the South China Sea to threatening threats. of Taiwan and the attack on Indian army positions in the Himalayas.
In Australia, the muscle used by China was economical: After Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, Beijing retaliated by reducing imports of Australian beef and called on the government in Canberra to hush up “anti-claims. -China âdeputies and the media.
The naked pressure turned on him; the Australians lifted their backs and decided to move closer to the United States.
One of the results was Aukus, the new military partnership between Australia, Britain and the United States, whose first major project is to build nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian Navy.
Between the Quad and the Aukus, “we are witnessing the emergence of a new security architecture,” Bonnie Glaser, Chinese expert at the German Marshall Fund in the United States, told me. “This sends a signal to Beijing that other countries are ready to stand up together and defend a rules-based international order.”
Containing China has become a top U.S. foreign policy priority, with coalition building being Biden’s instrument of choice. This shouldn’t be surprising; it is a theater in which the United States has a clear advantage.
China is very good in many areas: economic growth, large-scale construction projects, acquisition of foreign technology, cyber espionage. But he failed to make friends. It is a superpower with client states but no real allies, unless you count Pakistan and, recently, Russia.
This helps explain the fury of Chinese denunciations of Quads, Aukus and other regional groupings: it is a game they cannot play.
The question is whether China will launch a military challenge against the new coalition before the United States has time to consolidate it.
The test could take place in Taiwan, the breakaway province that China’s ruling Communist Party has long vowed to return to the homeland.
“The standard view in Asia is that Taiwan is the canary in the coal mine,” said Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official whose new book, “The Strategy of Denial,” focuses on the US confrontation. Chinese.
The recently retired commander of US forces in the Pacific, Navy Admiral Phil Davidson, warned in March that China could pose a serious threat to Taiwan “over the next six years,” Colby noted.
Chinese President Xi Jinping “can see that the trends are not favorable,” Colby said.
Australia’s new submarines could help deter a sea invasion, for example, but they won’t be in the water for more than a decade. Thus, the Chinese leader could see the next few years as the last opportunity to take Taiwan by force.
âWe should be worried,â Colby said.
If this is starting to sound like the bad old days of the Cold War, when the United States and its allies were obsessed with the prospect of a Soviet invasion of Europe, it should be.
No historical analogy is perfect, of course. Our competition-plus-conflict with China is complicated by the deep economic entanglement of the two countries, which was not the case with the Soviet Union.
But in many other ways the comparison is valid: two nuclear superpowers who disagree on ideology, often view world power as a zero-sum game, and – in the case of the United States – build coalitions and alliances to strengthen their influence.
“We are not looking for a new cold war,” Biden told the United Nations last week. But thanks to Xi’s assurance, he got one – and no matter how soothing his words, he acts on it.