Even as the sherpas of the Quad democracies — the United States (U.S.), India, Japan and Australia — prepare for a summit of the top leaders in Washington later this year, a rival quadrilateral grouping led by principal challenger China is in the making, with Russia, Pakistan and Iran.
Fired by the hubris of the successful centenary of the Communist Party of China, Beijing has been plotting its next moves on the geopolitical chessboard, and countering Quad is one of them. Is there a credible threat to the democratic Quad? Understanding China’s coalescence with each of these actors is instructive.
Despite a complex and troubled past, in recent years, the China-Russia relationship has gone from strength to strength. The two define it as a comprehensive strategic partnership that can be turned into an alliance, if necessary. On June 1, the foreign ministers of China and Russia marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation. The treaty is viewed as a bulwark against the U.S.-led West, and a pact of solidarity to perpetuate Sino-Russian pre-eminence and influence in world affairs.
The two nations are neighbours and partners in the combat against Covid-19 and are deepening cooperation in trade, economy, scientific cooperation and technological innovation. Russia supplies energy resources to China and shares defence technologies; in turn, the Chinese provide capital, equipment and goods needed by the Russians. Lurking Russian suspicions that China seeks its territory in the Far East and the perception that Moscow has become a junior partner is troublesome, but these reservations are kept in check for the larger needs of this relationship.
Western strategists are reflecting on ways to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, but this is easier said than done. There is a convergence between the Russian and Chinese governments and strategic communities. Ivan Timofeev, director of programmes at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), said, in an interview with the Global Times, in March 2021, “Sino-Russian relations are still not an alliance, but they are more than a partnership.”
Then there is China’s relationship with Pakistan, fuelled by a shared hostility towards India, which are of a different level of depth altogether. In a joint statement on November 25, 2018, the two nations projected themselves as “good neighbours, close friends, iron brothers and trusted partners” with an “All-Weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership” from which Pakistan continuously draws political and economic dividends.
China recognises the central geostrategic location of Pakistan, and its value in keeping India pinned down to being only a regional player. Strategic congruence, economic benefits and close security cooperation make up this relationship. Its attempted collaboration to counter the “three evils” of extremism, terrorism and separatism should not fool anyone, except to signal that Islamabad refrains from any action that hampers China in dealing harshly with its Muslim minority.
Since 2013, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), with its generous package worth $62 billion covering projects in infrastructure, transport, energy, industry and agriculture, has become the centrepiece of the relationship. Experts, however, point out that lately, CPEC has lost some of its salience, as the Pakistan economy has failed to grow due to the absence of economic reforms as well as enhanced security challenges. Islamabad is now also enmeshed in working out its options in a post-U.S. Afghanistan where it needs to reconcile its interests not only with China but also with Iran, Russia, Central Asian neighbours, and, to some extent, India. Pakistan will remain China’s steadfast partner, but given its long-standing relationship with the U.S., it will also be responsive to Washington’s overtures and offers of assistance in both the military and economic domains.
China-Iran relations, marked by a shared hostility towards the U.S., are seeing signs of consolidation. In March, the two countries agreed to a 25-year commitment to enhancing comprehensive economic cooperation. At the heart of this deal is China’s plan to invest $400 million in Iranian projects against a long-term supply of oil and gas to China. The Iranian foreign ministry clarified that the agreement contained a roadmap but not any contract, figure or exclusive rights to the other party. This agreement builds on President Xi Jinping’s visit to Iran in January 2016 and the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership to support “their core interests” such as independence, national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and Iran’s commitment to the One China policy.
On the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), China has strived to present itself as a firm upholder of Iran’s sovereignty and national dignity and has called on the U.S. to return to JCPOA. The $400-million investment plan, says Alex Vatanaka, Senior Fellow at Frontier Europe Initiative, can be Iran’s “insurance policy” for economic renewal if US sanctions continue and the U.S.-China fight escalates.
These three relationships are vibrant, but they are also vulnerable. The Vladimir Putin-Joe Biden summit in Geneva showed that Putin is willing to improve relations with the US (and the European Union) if his red lines are respected. Iran continues to be interested in JCPOA; if it materialises, this will increase U.S. leverage. Steady friend Pakistan is unpredictable, but the army, the most powerful player, remains interested in measured normalisation with Delhi.
The task then for the democratic Quad sherpas is delineated — use all available levers to weaken China’s relations with its three partners. China’s potential Quad is flawed because it is founded on limited common interests and rivalries, and is not backed by compelling principles and values. The Quad of democracies should strengthen itself and their sherpas should watch China’s moves carefully.
This article was first published in the Hindustan Times.
Amb. Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House and a former ambassador.