The role of the Quartet is increasing
The Quartet plays an increasingly important role in curbing Chinese influence. The Chinese government has always viewed the Quartet as a US-led effort to contain and counter China’s global rise, and the group’s unification could further escalate tensions between the two superpowers.
Before 2017, Chinese strategists argued that the interests of the Quartet member countries were too divergent to form real cohesion. In fact, the idea of the Quartet had been tested more than a decade earlier with less than favorable results.
However, a few years after the November 2017 meeting, Beijing began to rethink its initial disdain. By March 2021, when the Quartet held its first summit and issued a joint statement, Chinese officials became more concerned about the group. Since then, Beijing has viewed the Quartet as one of the biggest challenges to China’s ambitions in the coming years.
As strategic competition with China has become a rare bipartisan consensus in Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping has issued a warning that his country is facing a struggle for its future of the international order, with an America determined to prevent China’s rise. Xi believes that Beijing has a chance between now and 2035 to make China the number one power in the world in terms of economy, technology and maybe even military. An important part of advancing this goal is convincing countries in Asia and around the world that Chinese domination is inevitable and, therefore, they have no choice but to respond to meet China’s requirements. That would allow China to rewrite the rules of the international order and take a global leadership position without having to open fire.
China seeks to divide and attack
At first, Chinese strategists seemed to think that the new challenge posed by the Quartet could be solved relatively simply: using a “carrot and stick” policy to increase disagreements in economic and security interests of the Quad members. By emphasizing each country’s overwhelming dependence on the Chinese market, Beijing hopes to divide the group.
After the October 2020 Quartet foreign ministerial meeting and the ensuing Malabar naval exercises, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi changed his tune dramatically, criticizing the countries in building a “NATO of the Indo-Pacific region” and calls the Quad’s Indo-Pacific strategy a potential security threat to the region. Beijing also chooses a target to attack. China has adopted the strategy of “killing the chicken to scare the monkey,” and in this case, China chose to attack Australia to warn India and Japan.
By early 2021, Chinese officials had realized that ignoring or dividing the Quartet members was not effective. So Beijing turns to a third option: an all-out political attack.
The March 2021 meeting of Quartet leaders confirmed China’s growing concerns about the group’s importance. The early hosting of the first summit of the Quartet leaders by the Biden Administration (albeit in an online format) early in his term signaled that the group would be central to his strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. It was also the first time that a meeting of the Quartet produced a joint statement pledging to promote “a free, open, rules-based regional order that takes international law as the basis of its own accord and defend “democratic values and territorial integrity.” The Quartet also committed to cooperate in the production and distribution of 1 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to the entire region. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stated what probably worries Beijing most: “The summit showed that the Quartet had matured. From now on, this will be an important pillar of stability in the region.”
Why is China worried about the Quartet?
China has reason to worry about such developments and their implications for the global and regional outlook. On the security front, for example, the Quartet caused Beijing to change its mind about different scenarios in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea and to a lesser extent in the East China Sea, because China feels Australian, Indian and Japanese militaries are increasingly able to engage in any conflict involving the United States. On the other hand, the coordination of the Quartet with the US Pacific Deterrence Initiative is particularly important. A distributed network of land-based anti-ship missiles and other precision strike capabilities located in regional allies could deter Beijing from threatening Taiwan with ground attack, blockade or by land-launched missiles – although there is no guarantee that the Quad countries will reach a political agreement on the deployment of such capabilities. Another Chinese concern is that the Quartet will forge an intelligence-sharing agreement with the Five Eyes that would allow the dissemination of sensitive information about China’s strategy and behaviour.
The worst-case scenario for Beijing, however, is that the Quartet could serve as the foundation of a broader anti-China coalition on a global scale. If the Quartet manages to engage other Asian states, along with the EU and NATO in an attempt to confront or undermine China’s international ambitions, over time, they could turn the balance of power in the direction completely unfavorable to China. The quartet could also lay the groundwork for a broader economic, customs and standards union, potentially reshaping everything from global infrastructure funding, supply chains to technology standards. Kurt Campbell, senior Asia official for the Biden Administration, mentioned the need for a “positive economic vision” for the Indo-Pacific region; Beijing fears that the Quad could become the crux of such an effort.
In Southeast Asia, one of the regions where the Sino-American dispute is most apparent, the quartet’s resurgence is certainly being watched closely. Southeast Asia has become the object of strategic competition for both powers: The South China Sea continues to be a flashpoint, in which the US Navy regularly challenges China’s expansive “nine-dash line” claim in recent years for freedom of navigation operations.
Prospects for Vietnam to cooperate with the Quartet
Last year, when asked about Vietnam’s position on the fact that the “Quad” countries can cooperate more deeply with ASEAN countries in protecting freedom in the seas, the Spokesperson Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized “ASEAN always welcomes initiatives and ideas that contribute to peace, stability and prosperity in the region.” (first)
On May 14, 2020, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Vietnam joined the US, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand in conducting informal phone calls to contribute to the joint effort to combat the epidemic, creating the most favorable conditions for opening up and recovering the post-COVID-19 economy.
On the website of the Communist Party of Vietnam, there is an article expressing the view that: If invited to dialogue with the “Diamond Quartet” along with South Korea and New Zealand, Vietnam will have a great opportunity to diversify supply chain, deeply participate in the global supply chain, overcome too much dependence on the Chinese market and other economies in Northeast Asia (2). This shows the support attitude of the Quartet of the Communist Party of Vietnam.
In an interview with the press, former Deputy Foreign Minister, Vietnamese Ambassador to the US – Pham Quang Vinh also affirmed that “Despite many challenges in both politics, security and economy, this is an opportunity for small countries rise up, get out of their old position faster if they know how to grasp it!” (3)
For many Vietnamese, supporting the Quartet is crucial to being able to break free from China’s “coercive economic activities.” As an article commented: “The lesson for Vietnam is that sugar mills, cement kilns and recently 12 trillion projects are building mats, there are 10/14 thermal power plants in the south. The South is forcing us from a coal exporting country to now have a coal trade deficit. Countries that receive China’s “favors” will become debtors and gradually pay with their mineral resources, or accept China’s investment in mining in critical areas. (4)
However, Dr. Bui Ngoc Son, Institute of World Economy and Politics, in an interview said the opportunities and challenges when Vietnam discussed with the Quartet:
“In general, the opportunity is great, but to turn the opportunity into reality, Vietnam must have a specific strategy, such as restructuring the public administration apparatus, restructuring the economy, creating a good business environment, and infrastructure development can go far. If we can’t do that, the opportunity will pass or come, it will only be in the secondary parts… I think Vietnam must first show its enthusiasm for the idea of the Quartet. And if it is enthusiastic, Vietnam needs to consider the possibility of the idea to come true to develop a strategy.
And even without the Quartet, I think leaving China in both capital and production is a sure thing…
In addition, another problem of Vietnam is the too large role of state-owned enterprises. When state-owned enterprises still cast too large a shadow on the economy, the private sector cannot thrive. If the private sector is not strong, it is difficult to receive technology, because foreign enterprises come to Vietnam not to play with the state. They play with privates. Therefore, we must strongly reform the economic institutions…” (5)