US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) participate in a virtual meeting with leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries March 12, 2021, at the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images via AFP

The recent meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue aimed at promoting the democratic values shared by the US, Japan, India and Australia can be regarded as scoring a personal point for Joe Biden’s diplomacy, since despite all the odds, he succeeded in bringing the leaders together to highlight the significance if the Indo-Pacific region. 

Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan celebrated the gathering as “a big day for American diplomacy.” President Biden stressed that “the Quad is going to be vital arena for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.” His remarks dovetailed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement about friendly relations within the grouping and its labeling as an “important pillar of stability in the region” and “a force for global good.” 

The Spirit of the Quad” statement calls the Indo-Pacific a region “unconstrained by coercion” – a notion that has been widely applied by the leaders of the four states when describing Beijing’s diplomatic maneuvers in the region. During the grouping’s second ministerial summit held in Tokyo last October, then-US secretary of state Mike Pompeo appealed to the Quad states to rally against Chinese “exploitation, corruption and coercion.”

Although the joint statement following this month’s summit lacks any direct reference to China, one is still recognizable by reading between the lines.

The Quad vaccine partnership is regarded as an effort to counter Chinese dominance in the Indo-Pacific region. There is a very acute “labor division” among the group to materialize the initiative, with the US and Japan paying the bills, while India acts as a production ground and Australia being responsible for the vaccine distribution across Southeast Asia. 

Vaccine diplomacy is not the only area of fierce completion with China – a huge emphasis is placed on the joint development of fifth-generation telecommunications (5G) and other advanced technologies. The US, Japan and Australia have officially banned Huawei and ZTE from government procurement of 5G equipment, with India toeing a cautious line during the recent border clash by opting to pressure local telecom service providers on a ministerial level. 

The combination of Quad states’ efforts on the “critical technologies of the future” is a way to counterbalance China’s ambitious US$1.4 trillion plan to jump into the driver’s seat of global cutting-edge technology by stealing the steering wheel from the US. Such ambitions were reinforced by Beijing’s 14th five-year development plan, which prioritized “frontier technology” including quantum computing, machine learning, brain science and space exploration

Semiconductors have been a critical area for China’s competition with the US, South Korea and Taiwan. The Quad has recognized the huge potential of technology by stressing the importance of “strengthening supply chains for semiconductors” and cooperation on procuring rare-earth minerals.

China produces 60% of the world’s rare earths, with the US importing 80% of its supply from that country. In 2010, China curbed rare-earth exports to Japan, leading to a 350% increase in prices. Therefore, the four-member group plans to cut its dependence on China by co-developing new projects and funding production technologies. 

The US recently designated Beijing as “the only competitor” capable of challenging the international system. By prioritizing cooperation in a multitude of issues and “steering off a blunt anti-China message,” Biden is cautiously navigating US foreign policy through the dangerous waters of regional allies, which are heavily reliant on China’s economy and are wary of forming an “Asian NATO.” 

Promoting the Quad as a cornerstone of the US national-security agenda and infusing new vigor into long-shelved mechanisms sporadically grabbed by Donald Trump for loud press statements is a testimony to Biden’s “diplomacy is back … alliances are back” policy.

The idea of consulting allies prior to shaping US policy toward Beijing was reiterated by the US delegation at last week’s talks with China in Alaska, where the two sides exchanged barbs over a long list of “red lines.”

America’s long-awaited institutionalization of the Quad was also addressed at the March 12 summit, with the four states vowing to make officials and experts exchanges regular and ministerial meetings to be held yearly.

Biden has managed to learn from the mistakes of his predecessor, who was seeking to add an anti-China spirit to the grouping, while other members were wary of that line of thinking.

The US has stressed that “the Quad is not a military alliance; it’s not a new NATO,” thus recalling Japan’s remarks at last year’s summit that the meeting was “not being held with any particular country in mind.” Bringing India on board is also a big win for Biden’s administration, since that country has usually been regarded as the Quad’s Achilles’ heel. 

The Quad leaders spotlighted cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which speaks volumes about the group’s plans to facilitate a broader diplomatic outreach. Similar remarks were made earlier with reference to Europe.

Biden has stressed more of a soft-power agenda for the Quad with the broad spectrum of initiatives targeting climate change, heath security and tech standards. He is betting on a soft-power approach to gain more credibility among Quad allies by diluting the group’s military component – it remains a “security dialogue” and mentions “collaboration in maritime security” among its top priorities.

US pundits and officials highlight the security dimension of the Quad, especially in combined naval assets capability, with US Navy Admiral Philip Davidson calling it a “diamond of democracies” in the Indo-Pacific region with potential to “build into something bigger.”

Despite Biden’s efforts to minimize the anti-China nature of the Quad, Beijing doesn’t feel reassured. The Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times says that propelling an “Asian NATO” is beyond US capacity, with its editor-in-chief tweeting about the Quad as “a low-quality strategic construction” serving the US more “as psychological comfort.”

China Central Television a day before the Quad meeting cited Russian media saying that all four countries by pursuing self-interests make the whole structure weak and unable to live up to their own best interests. Russia along with China fell under Sullivan’s criticism the same day the Quad summit took place, with him stressing that Biden had “taken a firm line” by imposing new sanctions

By juggling soft- and hard-power instruments, Biden seems to be pursuing what Joseph Nye once called “smart power” – an adroit combination of a strong military while investing heavily in alliances, partnerships and institutions.

The long list of initiatives following the March 12 meeting signifies that this strategy might be successful. That will become clearer by the time the next summit takes place.

Danil Bochkov

Danil Bochkov is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). He holds a master's degree in economics (cum laude) from MGIMO University under the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a master's degree in world economy from the University of international Business and Economics, Beijing.