Why China is anxious about the Quad

Why China is anxious about the Quad

Bangladesh's relations with China would be "substantially damaged" if the country joins the "Quad", a US-led security initiative that includes mutual neighbour India, declares Li Jiming, the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh.

The Quad, described as "a military alliance aimed at countering China's resurgence", is a "narrow-purposed" geopolitical group, in Mr Li's view, and joining it would not help Bangladesh.

China has been strategically approaching Bangladesh to shun the "anti-Beijing club", as it believes the Quad alliance could greatly hamper China's development.

Understanding why the Quad was established could shed light on the reason for this tension. Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe first proposed the grouping in 2007 in response to China's increasing assertiveness. It languished from 2009-17 but has found a new sense of purpose in recent years.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as it's formally known, consists of Japan, India, Australia and the United States. It is not an alliance as such, but rather a coalition of countries committed to bolstering a rules-based order in the region. Its goal is to promote a "free, open and prosperous" Indo-Pacific, which members believe China is attempting to destabilise.

The fact that President Joe Biden made the first-ever Quad leaders' summit in March one of his first multilateral engagements demonstrates how important close cooperation with Indo-Pacific allies and partners is to America. Washington sees the Quad as a new component of regular Indo-Pacific diplomacy.

The leaders had to meet via video link because of the pandemic, but Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison nonetheless hailed the event as "historic". It sent "a strong message to the region about our support for a sovereign, independent Indo-Pacific", he said.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and expressed concern about China's "unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas", as well as the status of human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, according to the Japanese government.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told reporters that his country believes in regional cooperation architecture, but that the US prefers the concept of establishing "security architecture".

A cautious China informed the Quad countries that it is closely monitoring their interactions and hopes that members will act in ways that promote regional peace and stability rather than the opposite.

China has been raising its profile lately through vaccine diplomacy. It recently announced a joint project with five South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, to combat the coronavirus. Significantly, India has not been a part of this initiative.

And while China is concerned about border conflicts with India, closer ties between Delhi and Washington and related issues, another problem has attracted its attention, according to diplomatic analysts. They point out that India's prime minister, foreign secretary, army chief, air force chief and other government officials have all visited Bangladesh in the last year.

During this time, Bangladesh was also visited by a special envoy from the US president, the US deputy secretary of state, and other officials. This must have alarmed China.

Diplomatic sources in Dhaka note that when Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar visited the Bangladeshi capital, he said Bangladesh-India ties had a bright future in the context of Bay of Bengal connectivity. He also stated that countries like Japan should be included in this connectivity.

Japan has said that the Matarbari power plant, a 1,200-megawatt coal-fired project that it is helping to finance and build in Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh, is part of its enhanced Indo-Pacific focus.

While the Quad might be little more than a diplomatic talking shop, more concrete efforts to curb Chinese influence have been seen. Several Chinese experts believe there is Indian support behind recent attacks on Chinese people and interests in Myanmar, and that Delhi is aiding some ethnic rebel groups fighting against the military junta.

For its part, Bangladesh has officially called off the development of a deep-sea port that China had been offering to finance off the country's southeastern coast. Officially, the project was scrapped on environmental grounds, though sources say Dhaka officials' concerns about running up more debt also played a part.

In any case, the decision came as a relief to Delhi, which worried about having a China-backed megaproject so close to Indian territory. Instead, another deep-sea port will be built near the Japan-backed Matarbari site.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that the Quad will work like a pillar in protecting the regional balance. But analysts are not very optimistic about its future.

Boosters paint the Quad as an "Asian Nato", but the Atlantic alliance covered a clearly defined geographical area. It's still not clear whether the Quad's small and widely dispersed membership will grow. New Zealand and South Korea, for example, do not appear interested. Saudi Arabia has been mentioned as a prospective member, in which case the United States should make clear what the point would be.

The way China is spreading its economic empire in Asia and Africa, the chances of the US and its three allies forming a broad Nato-style coalition to counter Beijing are slim.

China has built a significant physical presence -- and created financial dependence -- through its Belt and Road projects, notably ports, in Africa, as well as Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Bangladesh, meanwhile, has become a geopolitical focal point because of the strategic value a port in the country could have for China or India.

But Bangladeshi Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen has made clear that his country does not want to be drawn into the chess game and would pursue a "neutral and balanced" foreign policy.

"We consider the situation in the interest of the people of the country," he said recently. "There is no interest in us joining in a defence pact. We are not involved in a regional military alliance. Our policy is to be friendly with everyone."

Still, China remains wary, believing that while the Quad does not call itself a military alliance, its purpose is military. For this reason, it wants to be sure that Bangladesh does not cooperate.

It may well be that the Indo-Pacific region will become the battlefield of superpowers, but international politics can take many twists and turns. Given what we've been seeing lately, one has to wonder how long it will be before Russia takes a position.

The author is a freelance journalist, researcher and business analyst, email: mushfiq.mukit@gmail.com

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