The world is watching how the Biden administration deals with China. Image: Facebook

Just days after a much-anticipated phone conversation between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Washington has gone on a diplomatic spree to rally allies and strategic partners against the Asian powerhouse.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, widely seen as Biden’s “alter-ego”, has just finalized crucial meetings with counterparts from Europe as well as the so-called “Quad” (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) powers in the Indo-Pacific.

At the heart of the Biden administration’s strategic offensive is the establishment of what former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once famously described as a “democratic security diamond”, namely a coalition of democratic powers to preserve the liberal international order and contain China.

During a CNN town hall event this week, Biden adopted particularly strident language on bilateral relations with China and reiterated America’s supposed role as a beacon of democracy.

In stark contrast to his predecessors, who believed America shouldn’t impose its values on other nations, the new US president told Americans “We must speak up for human rights. It’s who we are” and underscored his commitment to “reassert our role as spokespersons for human rights at the [UN] and other agencies that have an impact on [China’s] attitude.”

Reflecting on earlier conversations with his Chinese counterpart, Biden warned “there will be repercussions” should China press ahead with its human rights violations at home and in its near neighborhood.

“I point out to [Xi], no American president can be sustained as the president if he doesn’t reflect the values of the United States,” Biden added in a dramatic departure from the largely transactional approach of former president Donald Trump, who reportedly in private even cheered on Beijing’s violent repression of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang and dismissed Hong Kong pro-democracy protests as “riots.”

Biden’s diplomatic chief and longtime aide, Blinken, has openly endorsed “[a] tougher line on some of the egregious things that China has done” and warned of the Biden administration’s preparedness to “take action on” a full range of human rights issues, though so far falling short of endorsing an official boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his confirmation hearing before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 19. Photo: AFP/Alex Edelman/Pool/Getty Images

The White House has made it clear that it seeks to approach the China question “from a position of strength”, namely in conjunction with allies, rather than through provocative and unilateral actions.

Biden is expected to rally like-minded powers in this direction during the upcoming G7 summit, which will be hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who, in turn, has also adopted an increasingly tough stance against China’s perceived by some as predatory investments in Europe and its rising maritime assertiveness in Asia.

Earlier, Blinken held talks with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab with the US and the “E3” European powers “agree[ing] to closely coordinate to address the global challenges posed by China.”

But the Biden administration’s most consequential diplomatic offensive so far was the first meeting on Thursday among the Quad powers of Australia, US, India and Japan in the Biden era. 

Last October, Japan hosted an in-person meeting of Quad foreign ministers in Tokyo, which was quickly followed by their largest joint naval exercises in the past decade.

Since the mid-2000s, the Quad has rapidly matured from an informal talk shop among the four major powers into an undeclared alliance against China. Beijing has said it views the grouping as a de facto “Asian NATO.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price underscored the importance of the meeting “to advancing our shared goals in the free and open Indo-Pacific and rising to the defining challenges of our time.”

During the virtual meeting, Blinken spoke with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, and Indian Minister of External Affairs Dr S Jaishankar.

The joint statement released by the four powers was notable for omitting any mention of China, yet the Asian powerhouse was front and center during the discussions.

A trilateral exercise between the US Navy, the Royal Australian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Philippine Sea on July 21, 2020. Photo: US Navy

According to the State Department, the four diplomats agreed on the need to preserve a “free and open Indo-Pacific region, including support for freedom of navigation and territorial integrity” in face of growing Chinese naval assertiveness.

In a separate statement, however, Japan explicitly mentioned threats posed by China as a central topic of discussion among the Quad powers.

“Foreign Minister Motegi expressed serious concern with regard to the China’s Coast Guard Law,” according to Japan’s Foreign Ministry, referring to a newly-passed law by China’s rubberstamp legislature that calls on the country’s coast guard forces to use all means necessary to advance Beijing’s expansive claims in the East and South China Seas. 

“The four ministers concurred to strongly oppose unilateral and forceful attempts to change the status quo in the context of the East and South China Sea,” it added.

In their joint statement, the Quad ministers consciously downplayed fears of a “New Cold War” by emphasizing their commitment to existing multilateral institutions, including their “mutual support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) centrality” in shaping an inclusive regional security architecture.

In recent years, Quad members have jointly and bilaterally engaged key ASEAN members as part of a broader effort to check Chinese ambitions in the region.

In fact, the US, Australia, Japan and India have all actively sought to enhance the maritime security capabilities of China’s rivals in the South China Sea, namely Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

True to Biden’s promise of a values-based foreign policy, Blinken and his Quad counterparts adopted an uncompromising position on the recent military coup against the Myanmar government.

Their stance stood in stark contrast to that of China, which has rejected tougher international sanctions against the Myanmar junta by portraying the brazen overthrow of a democratically-elected government as a purely domestic matter.

Myanmar protesters in front of the Chinese embassy in Yangon, February 12, 2021. Image: AFP

According to the US State Department, the four ministers emphasized “the urgent need to restore the democratically elected government in Burma [Myanmar]” and “the priority of strengthening democratic resilience in the broader region.”

“We’ve all agreed on the need to swiftly restore the democratic system (in Myanmar),” Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters, underscoring the Quad powers’ shared opposition to a violent crackdown on democratic protests in the Southeast Asian nation.

“I stressed that, with challenges to existing international order continuing in various fields, the role we, the countries that share basic values and are deeply committed to fortifying free and open international order based on the rule of law play is only getting bigger,” Motegi said.