U.S.-China Competition and Washington’s Case for ‘Quad Plus’

A rethink of U.S.-China relations was already underway in Washington much before the outbreak of the coronavirus, but it has accelerated in the post-pandemic environment.

By Akriti Vasudeva Co-Author  ·  Jagannath Panda Co-Author

This article was originally published in the National Interest

The supremacy of the United States in world politics is increasingly being challenged by Xi Jinping’s China. Beijing’s confrontation with Washington in the economic domain, the Chinese Navy’s continued adventurism in the South and East China Sea even amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese posturing against key U.S. allies and partners such as Taiwan, Japan, Australia, and India, coupled with the country’s increasing technological prowess are raising questions about the United States’ status as the preeminent superpower.

The protection and maintenance of the existing U.S.-led global order has become Washington’s foremost strategic endeavor as a revisionist China seeks to challenge this status quo, to emerge as an equally dominating world power—perhaps one that could be more powerful. This contest has pushed the United States to actively develop coalitions with countries that have a shared interest in preserving the current liberal international order. The most widely discussed of these groupings is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, comprised of the United States, India, Australia, and Japan. But in recent months, Washington has begun exploring a new framework for Indo-Pacific cooperation, dubbed the “Quad Plus.”  

Its origins trace back to March 20, 2020, when U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Beigun initiated a weekly online meeting with his counterparts in India, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand to exchange views on and coordinate responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Less than two months later, in a higher-level meeting, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a videoconference with the foreign ministers of India, Australia, Japan, Brazil, Israel, and South Korea. During the virtual meeting, he stressed, among other things, the importance of transparency and accountability in countering the coronavirus. Various calls featuring both these configurations have happened since that time. This U.S.-led engagement is not just a mechanism to trade best practices to address a common challenge, develop resilient supply chains, or pool efforts and expertise to develop a coronavirus vaccine. Rather, to an extent, the United States views this coalition of like-minded countries from the prism of its competition with China and sees it as a way to reemphasize its leadership in the Indo-Pacific region by building on increasing global concerns about dependence on Beijing.

A rethink of U.S.-China relations was already underway in Washington much before the outbreak of the coronavirus, but it has accelerated in the post-pandemic environment. The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy asserted that China seeks to “challenge American power, influence, and interests” while the 2018 National Defense Strategy termed Beijing a “strategic competitor” that is looking to attain “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.” Deteriorating trade ties driven by U.S. concerns over the trade deficit with China as well as intellectual property theft by Chinese companies further complicated the bilateral relationship. In this environment, China’s lack of transparency on the outbreak of the coronavirus and the threat the virus posed heightened U.S. distrust of Beijing. In fact, as articulated by various U.S. officials recently, the Trump administration has reached the conclusion that President Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with Beijing in 1972 and subsequent U.S. engagement to encourage economic and political openness within China has “failed.” Now, Washington seeks to “demand fairness and reciprocity” from China potentially with the support of a “new grouping of like-minded nations.”

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