Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Quad Is a Delusion

The new grouping won’t give the United States any more leverage over China than it already has—and it might raise tensions in the region higher than ever.

By , an Anne and Bernard Spitzer professor of international relations at the City College of New York.
U.S. President Joe Biden, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meets virtually with members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—Australia, India, and Japan—in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meets virtually with members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—Australia, India, and Japan—in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington on March 12. Oliver Douiery/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. politics may be hyperpolarized, but on China policy, there’s considerable cross-party consensus. Republican and Democratic leaders increasingly see the country as the main threat to Pax Americana.

GOP hawk Sen. Tom Cotton warned China’s export controls on rare earth metals and military buildup reflect this ambition, a jeremiad echoed by the likes of Republican politicians Ted Cruz, Nikki Haley, Mitt Romney, and Marco Rubio. And although the right may paint Democrats as soft on China, the evidence suggests otherwise. U.S. President Joe Biden started rallying the United States’ Asian allies—Australia, Japan, and South Korea—to counter Beijing in the Indo-Pacific even before his inauguration, and he hasn’t let up. The president’s punitive economic measures, including bans on U.S. investments of 59 Chinese companies, mimic his predecessor’s. In May, Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, declared “the period that was broadly defined as engagement has come to an end.” In all this, Biden is in step with his party. Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee said Beijing seeks “global dominance,” and a House Intelligence Committee report chided the intelligence community for not taking China’s challenge seriously enough. Meanwhile, the $250 billion United States Innovation and Competition Act introduced by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer amounts to a multifaceted plan for containing China.

One specific facet of U.S. China policy that also blurs the Trump-Biden distinction is strengthening the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad. Comprised of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan, it emerged in 2007 as a brainchild of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and held its first summit this March, after which its members issued a joint statement. Following the conclave, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to northeast Asia to maintain the momentum. Austin also added India to his itinerary. Chinese officials promptly lambasted the Quad as the real threat to peace and even warned smaller Indo-Pacific countries—Bangladesh for one—not to cooperate with it, essentially repeating the message it delivered to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last fall.

U.S. politics may be hyperpolarized, but on China policy, there’s considerable cross-party consensus. Republican and Democratic leaders increasingly see the country as the main threat to Pax Americana.

GOP hawk Sen. Tom Cotton warned China’s export controls on rare earth metals and military buildup reflect this ambition, a jeremiad echoed by the likes of Republican politicians Ted Cruz, Nikki Haley, Mitt Romney, and Marco Rubio. And although the right may paint Democrats as soft on China, the evidence suggests otherwise. U.S. President Joe Biden started rallying the United States’ Asian allies—Australia, Japan, and South Korea—to counter Beijing in the Indo-Pacific even before his inauguration, and he hasn’t let up. The president’s punitive economic measures, including bans on U.S. investments of 59 Chinese companies, mimic his predecessor’s. In May, Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, declared “the period that was broadly defined as engagement has come to an end.” In all this, Biden is in step with his party. Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee said Beijing seeks “global dominance,” and a House Intelligence Committee report chided the intelligence community for not taking China’s challenge seriously enough. Meanwhile, the $250 billion United States Innovation and Competition Act introduced by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer amounts to a multifaceted plan for containing China.

One specific facet of U.S. China policy that also blurs the Trump-Biden distinction is strengthening the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad. Comprised of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan, it emerged in 2007 as a brainchild of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and held its first summit this March, after which its members issued a joint statement. Following the conclave, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to northeast Asia to maintain the momentum. Austin also added India to his itinerary. Chinese officials promptly lambasted the Quad as the real threat to peace and even warned smaller Indo-Pacific countries—Bangladesh for one—not to cooperate with it, essentially repeating the message it delivered to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) last fall.

The Quad’s emergence shouldn’t surprise Beijing. Rising powers routinely evoke countervailing coalitions, and shared anxiety about an adversary can contribute to their cohesion—but that’s just a starting point. The Quad’s problem is it doesn’t have much else to run on and hence will ultimately amount to U.S. power with a multilateral veneer.


Of the Quad’s members, only the United States can maintain a sizeable, strong, and enduring military presence in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, the most likely venues for confrontation with China. The U.S. military has power projection forces, sea-based air support, surface ships and submarines, and regional bases to support deterrence and warfighting. Beijing’s nuclear weapons may serve as instruments of coercion against Japan and Australia, perhaps even nuclear-armed India, but won’t be credible against the United States, which has many more of them than China does.

In a nonnuclear clash with China, something no sane person should want, the United States might win, or at least end the war, on favorable terms (although war games suggest otherwise). But even if it could narrowly prevail, in the last few decades, the People’s Liberation Army has acquired the muscle needed to ensure the United States pays a heavy price in the event of a war; and this trend will continue. The United States will nevertheless remain a formidable adversary for China, but the relevant question here is what the rest of the Quad can bring to the table. Not much, hype notwithstanding.

For example, in one standard measure of power, India’s population nearly equals China and because of a higher fertility rate will soon surpass it. Although population size can be an asset, much depends on the human capital developed with it. Unfortunately for India, on that score, China is by most measures—longevity, levels of education, technical skill, caloric intake, and health—far ahead. Ditto for technology, where the gap will grow: Not only does China’s GDP exceed India’s by a factor of four, but Beijing devotes 2 percent of its GDP to technological research and development compared to India’s 0.7 percent. On private, governmental, and university research and development combined, India spends nearly $48 billion annually and has 156 million researchers per million people. The equivalent sums for China are $346 billion and 1,089 researchers. Compare the two countries in internet availability; the quality of schools, universities, and infrastructure; and achievements in cutting edge technologies (robotics, artificial intelligence, 5G, and supercomputers—of which China has nearly twice as many as the United States), and China’s overwhelming edge becomes apparent again.

These differences help explain China’s clear advantages over India in power projection and quality of armaments as well as reconnaissance, target acquisition, and cyberwarfare systems. And because of its overall technological superiority and a military budget almost four times bigger than India’s, China will maintain and even increase its lead. Moreover, Indian forces must travel more than 2,350 miles to reach the South China Sea while Chinese troops sit atop India’s vast northern frontier. So it’s hard to imagine precisely how India can help the United States deter, let alone defeat, China.


Perhaps no East Asian country (leaving aside Taiwan) worries more about China’s resurgence than Japan for obvious historical and geographical reasons. Yet Japan has some big advantages compared to India. Although Japan’s GDP is less than 40 percent of China’s, it still ranks third in the world and is 2.5 times greater per capita. The quality of Japan’s human capital is superb, and it is also a front-rank technological power with a vast pool of skilled labor and scientific expertise.

As for the military side of the ledger, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are technologically advanced, and critical assessments conclude its sophisticated defense industries produce world-class high-tech armaments. Yet China spends five times as much on the People’s Liberation Army, which has many more weapons essential to success in war. China’s leaders also have pushed military modernization relentlessly, and although Japan has increased its defense budget for nine successive years, military spending has been less than 1 percent of GDP for nearly 60 years. Tokyo could, in principle, make the political decision to increase this proportion substantially, but there’s no evidence of any such move on the horizon. If Japan opts for continuity and joins an anti-China military coalition in East Asia, it will be taking big risks.

Since Japan’s Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the United States doesn’t obligate the Self-Defense Forces to help the United States in a war with China regardless of the circumstances (note the wording of Article V), Japan would risk exposure to Chinese missiles and airstrikes if it went beyond its treaty obligations. Not surprisingly, despite Washington’s call for a common front, Tokyo has refused to commit to help defend Taiwan, something Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga made clear following his April meeting with Biden and despite the reference to Taiwan (an anodyne call for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”) in their joint statement. U.S. officials were doubtlessly disappointed, but given strategic realities, why would Japan roll the dice when it can count on U.S. protection without doing so?

Australia, the Quad’s fourth member, can’t really beef up the group either. Its navy must sail more than 3,000 miles to reach the South China Sea, 500 miles more to get to Taiwan. Once there, it would have to contend with China’s missiles, submarines, and aircraft as well as Chinese operations aimed at severing the sea lines of communication supplying Australian forces. True, Australian warships have sailed the South China Sea since World War I, but in the last few decades, China, no longer weak, has transformed the local balance of power. Although Australian naval vessels joined U.S., Indian, and Japanese ships for the Malabar exercises (which started in 1992) on two occasions—2007 and 2020—Australia’s navy lacks the punch to ensure maritime missions against China are something other than a U.S. undertaking. The apparent enthusiasm of Campbell and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan for a more expansive Australian naval strategy won’t change that. Although Australians increasingly distrust China and consider it a threat, in a recent Lowy Institute poll, 57 percent wanted Australia to stay out of any Sino-American conflict.


Perhaps it’s wrong to judge the Quad in purely military terms; after all, strategy doesn’t reduce solely to brute force. Yet a wider view doesn’t change the overall picture. If the Quad is also to be a political partnership aimed at countering China’s growing influence in East Asia, what exactly will its members do to achieve that goal, and what will be the division of labor? How will the Quad overcome ASEAN’s evident reluctance to get sucked into the intensifying rivalry between China and its adversaries? Perhaps the United States’ Quad partners could help exert economic pressure on Beijing, but given their dependence on Chinese trade and investments as well as vulnerability to retaliation, it’s hard to see them doing that except episodically and delicately. Australia, 39 percent of whose exports go to China compared to less than 4 percent to the United States, has already experienced such blowback after it banned Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from 5G projects, criticized Beijing’s behavior in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and called for investigating the origins of COVID-19. China imposed multiyear tariff hikes on key Australian exports, including wine (more than 200 percent) and barley (80 percent). Moreover, rock lobsters—96 percent of which was exported to China—were blocked by inspections; several meat producers were shut out; and ships carrying coal, barred from offloading their cargo, were stranded for months. Australia didn’t cave, but Beijing didn’t expect that. Its goal was to send a message—not just to Canberra.

The Quad won’t disappear; it will hold summits, issue statements, and stage naval exercises. But those who want it to become central to Washington’s neo-containment strategy are deluding themselves.

Rajan Menon is an Anne and Bernard Spitzer professor of international relations at the City College of New York. He is also a senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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