Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
While having lunch with an Asian diplomat a couple of weeks ago, I happened to mention the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which comprises the United States, Japan, India and Australia and is commonly known as the Quad. That on-and-off security dialogue focused on China when it started in 2007 and was seen as the democratic countries’ response to China’s increasingly assertive rise. The dialogue ended when Australia pulled out but, after a 10-year hiatus, it was revived in 2017 when the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy was launched.
The term Indo-Pacific was introduced into the vocabulary of U.S. President Donald Trump and other Pacific leaders to replace “Asia-Pacific” to make it clear that India, and the Indian Ocean, are part and parcel of the security interest of these countries. In late May, the United States announced that the U.S. Pacific Command had been renamed the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
Given this background, it was a little surprising to hear my lunch companion chuckle and respond: “Only the United States and Australia are left in the Quad. India and Japan are gone.”
It was generally assumed that the Quad’s raison d’être was China, though this was not openly said. China knew it and protested to all four members back in 2007, when the dialogue also saw parallel joint military exercises on a large scale.
So it is not surprising that, after its revival in 2017, one of China’s goals may have been to nip it in the bud quickly and quietly. And this it seems to have achieved quite successfully, through diplomacy, without use of force.
It turns out that China’s President, Xi Jinping, spent two days quietly talking with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last April. They discussed a range of issues, including trade, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the intractable border issue. At the end of the meeting, while the problems hadn’t been resolved, they had agreed at least on how they should be approached. Mr. Modi called that meeting a “milestone.” Since then, India has been noticeably quiet about China.
Japan, too, was the beneficiary of the resumption of China’s smile diplomacy. In mid-April, State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a rare visit to Japan and accepted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposal for an exchange of summit visits. The following month, Premier Li Keqiang visited Japan as part of a trilateral summit involving China, Japan and South Korea, but Mr. Li stayed on beyond the meeting to pay an official visit to Japan.
With that, the ice was broken. Mr. Li invited Mr. Abe to visit China and Mr. Xi has agreed to visit Japan next year.
Japan has also agreed to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative – a proposal of Chinese-built infrastructure connecting Asia, Europe and Africa. Some Japanese companies are interested in exploring co-operation with China in a third country since both Japan and China have much experience with infrastructure construction and financing. Japan had been one of the few countries reluctant to take part in the Chinese initiative and that was a factor in delaying the thaw between the two countries.
So, China has greatly improved relations with India and Japan. But underlying realities remain, such as both countries’ opposition to Chinese actions in the South China Sea as well as Beijing’s construction and militarization of islands in the Spratly Archipelago. What China has achieved isn’t a change in the fundamental position of these countries so much as a willingness to co-operate and to manage differences.
China’s diplomacy was the focus of attention last month when the Communist Party held a rare meeting called the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs.
After the conference, one scholar, Zhang Zhirong, a professor at the School of International Studies, Peking University, recounted with relish Mr. Xi’s report of his successful diplomacy, saying, “China has defused the tensions with some neighbouring countries, including India and Japan, thanks to its correct foreign policy.” There was no mention of the Quad.
China’s improvement of relations with India and Japan is to be applauded. However, it doesn’t mean that those two countries will remain quiet if China should overstep its bounds, say, in the South China Sea, the East China Sea or the Indian Ocean.