Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Mohan-C-Raja-foreign-policy-columnist
C. Raja Mohan
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12. Alex Wong/Getty Images

India may be nowhere near turning its partnership with the United States into any sort of formal or informal military alliance, but their growing strategic engagement dominates China’s discourse on India. Next week’s Tokyo summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad—a loose grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—is therefore bound to be of special concern in Beijing.

On the face of it, China’s persistent campaign against India’s ties with the United States, its characterization of the Quad as an “Asian NATO,” and its blistering attacks against the Indo-Pacific geopolitical construct embraced by New Delhi and its partners in the Quad seem unnecessarily alarmist. Its top diplomats have castigated the Quad members for “ganging up in the Asia-Pacific region, creating trilateral and quadrilateral small cliques, and [being] bent on provoking confrontation.” China focusing its outrage on the Quad looks odd considering Beijing has long lived with real U.S. alliances and hard security commitments on its periphery, including U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere.

Two factors, however, help explain China’s aggressive campaign against the Quad and, especially, nascent U.S.-Indian ties.

India may be nowhere near turning its partnership with the United States into any sort of formal or informal military alliance, but their growing strategic engagement dominates China’s discourse on India. Next week’s Tokyo summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad—a loose grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—is therefore bound to be of special concern in Beijing.

On the face of it, China’s persistent campaign against India’s ties with the United States, its characterization of the Quad as an “Asian NATO,” and its blistering attacks against the Indo-Pacific geopolitical construct embraced by New Delhi and its partners in the Quad seem unnecessarily alarmist. Its top diplomats have castigated the Quad members for “ganging up in the Asia-Pacific region, creating trilateral and quadrilateral small cliques, and [being] bent on provoking confrontation.” China focusing its outrage on the Quad looks odd considering Beijing has long lived with real U.S. alliances and hard security commitments on its periphery, including U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere.

Two factors, however, help explain China’s aggressive campaign against the Quad and, especially, nascent U.S.-Indian ties.

The most obvious factor is India’s sheer size and potential power to shape China’s strategic periphery. Although China has rarely seen India as a peer competitor, Beijing is acutely conscious that India could create significant problems for China if aligned against it with other powers. Keeping India—a potential superpower—from aligning with the United States is thus a first-order strategic goal for Beijing.

That China’s concerns about a potential U.S.-Indian alignment have recently taken a paranoid turn reminds us of Beijing’s endless rants about New Delhi’s strategic collaboration with Moscow during the 1960s and 1970s. Beijing worried about Russian imperialism aligning with India’s own hegemonic ambitions in South Asia. Chinese leader Mao Zedong was at his vulgar and pithy best in a poem describing the Soviet Union’s relationship with India: “The bear flaunts its claws / Riding the back of the cow.” Then, as now, China did not like to see India’s relations with other powers looking better than its own mostly failed attempts to win allies.

Chinese rhetoric intensified after the Trump administration revived the Quad in 2017.

Second, Beijing is playing to the gallery of entrenched anti-American sentiment in New Delhi that insists on Asian solidarity and avoidance of Western coalitions. Although the weight of this sentiment—a product of India’s history of anti-colonialism, quasi-socialism, and Cold War alignment with the Soviet Union—has begun to decline, there are many in the Indian establishment who worry that getting too close to the United States might provoke China. Beijing is betting that its warnings might stoke further unease in New Delhi.

China, of course, has a much longer history of partnership with the United States, beginning under former U.S. President Richard Nixon in the 1970s. In New Delhi, on the other hand, keeping a reasonable distance from Washington has been a long-standing policy. Even as India warmed up to the United States in recent years, New Delhi has insisted that its policy of “strategic autonomy” remains unchanged—currently demonstrated by India’s refusal to join its Quad partners in denouncing Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.

Beijing’s obsession with Indian-U.S. relations also stands in contrast to the fact that China has rarely objected to Pakistan’s intensive, formalized military partnership with the United States over the decades. China seems to have no issues reaching out to Pakistan despite the latter’s bilateral military cooperation agreement with the United States and former membership in the Central Treaty Organization and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization—two alliances sponsored by Britain and the United States, respectively, in the 1950s.

Despite occasional hiccups, the U.S. military partnership with Pakistan endured through the decades but drew little criticism from Beijing. When the United States declared Pakistan a major non-NATO ally in 2004, it evoked little protest from China—on the contrary, Beijing continues to celebrate its “all weather” partnership with Islamabad. This stands in sharp contrast to China’s ballistic rhetoric in 2007, when India invited Australia, Japan, and Singapore to join its annual Malabar naval exercises. Beijing called the event the precursor to the formation of an Asian NATO. Chinese propaganda along these lines has had some measure of success in India in the past; the narrative of Washington trying to engineer an Asian NATO resonated with Indian nationalists and leftists who shared the Chinese idea that Asian security must be shaped by Asian powers. In September 2007, Beijing’s campaign against a U.S.-led Asian NATO triggered large-scale protests by the Indian communist parties and played a role in the eventual collapse of the coalition, backed by the left, supporting the Manmohan Singh government.

Since 2007, the “Asian NATO” moniker has stuck in the Chinese discourse on India’s partnerships, especially its military relations with the United States. Chinese rhetoric intensified after the Trump administration revived the Quad in 2017—and gained additional salience when the Biden administration gave the Quad fresh momentum by organizing a flurry of summits and policy initiatives. The upcoming Tokyo summit is the Quad’s third since Joe Biden became president.

Barely a year ago, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was still dismissing the Quad as mere “sea foam”—here this moment and gone the next. Now, China can’t stop denouncing the Quad as a dangerous manifestation of “small cliques” seeking to undermine Asian security.

India’s arm’s-length relationship with its Quad partners, however, creates a problem for Chinese analysts. They are torn between denouncing Indian military engagement with the United States as a dangerous threat and ridiculing U.S. strategic illusions about India. On a good day, Beijing welcomes New Delhi’s foreign policy of nonalignment and its continuing refusal to become a junior partner to Washington. On a bad day, China attacks India’s growing alignment with the United States.

For some Chinese analysts, India’s strategy is a mirror image of China’s own strategic maxim in the 1970s and 1980s: “align with the far”—the United States—“against the near”—the Soviet Union. Today, it is India’s turn to draw closer to the United States to fend off the much nearer threat from China. In their informal interactions with the Indian strategic community, some Chinese scholars have expressed their concern that New Delhi is leveraging Sino-Indian military tensions over the disputed border in Ladakh since 2020 to ramp up military cooperation with Washington.

Few Chinese scholars are ready to concede the flip side of their proposition: that China’s aggressive actions on the border are driving India closer to the United States. The official Chinese position, which Wang repeated during his visit to India in March, is that the countries’ border tensions should be kept separate from the larger challenges of building a multipolar world that limits U.S. power. That remains unacceptable to India.

But Wang also offered some assurances that China’s vision of Asia is not unipolar, as India fears, and acknowledged India as a major regional power. To his interlocutors in New Delhi, Wang dangled the bait of working together on a response to the Russia-Ukraine war and its threat to the global order.

India is not ready to bite, insisting that resolving border tensions must precede any cooperation with China on larger issues. Similarly, Beijing’s new Global Security Initiative—a sweeping statement designed to counter U.S. global influence—has drawn little interest in New Delhi.

Almost a century ago, at an anti-imperialist congress in Brussels in 1927, Indian and Chinese nationalists had their first formal encounter. Together, they swore their shared commitment to overthrowing Western colonialism and building a new Asian order. Since then, both countries have struggled to deal with the West’s enduring power, but their policies have almost never been in sync. When China seemed to be drawing closer to the West, India was raging against it. When it was India’s turn to warm up to the West, China was taking up cudgels against it.

There were two brief exceptions. In the 1950s, then-Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had romantic ideas about building an Asian “area of peace” in partnership with China, but relations quickly deteriorated over China’s militarization of Tibet and border claims, ultimately culminating in the 1962 Sino-Indian War. After the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, Indian and Chinese interests briefly realigned when each worried about the so-called unipolar moment. But the Indian leadership soon decided that a unipolar Asia dominated by a rising China would be far worse than a unipolar world led by the United States.

India’s tactics are wrapped in incrementalism, but its strategic imperative lies in deeper cooperation with the United States.

Barely a decade after 1927, Indian and Chinese nationalists were confronted with World War II, but the two sides could not agree on a joint approach. Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek visited India in early 1942 to persuade Mahatma Gandhi to align the Indian nationalist movement with China and Britain to fight Japanese imperialism. Gandhi was not impressed. He was more interested in getting the British out of India right away—though he stopped short of aligning with the Nazis and Japanese to that end, as other Indian nationalist leaders did.

With Sino-Indian relations defined by violent border disputes after 1962, New Delhi looked to Moscow to balance Beijing. As the United States and China drew closer in the 1970s, India doubled down on its partnership with Russia. Similarly, as China and Russia align with each other today, India has steadily tilted toward the United States.

Is India’s tilt toward the United States irreversible, or could it be reversed by India’s refusal to criticize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and join its Quad partners in sanctioning Moscow? These questions animate both Chinese and American analysts.

The Biden administration probably recognizes that Russia is about India’s past—a long and deep relationship it can’t unwind overnight—and not its future. The rivalry between India and China is structural and unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. China could break the logjam on the border but doesn’t appear to be willing to let go of its only strategic leverage against India.

For India, the trick is to move slowly to strengthen its regional position. India’s tactics are wrapped in incrementalism, but its strategic imperative lies in deeper cooperation with the United States. The Quad summit in Tokyo next week will give us a better sense of how the geopolitics of Asian realignment will play out.

C. Raja Mohan is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Twitter: @MohanCRaja

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