Outsized demands to claim territory’: US official on China action in India

The US will push back against China’s aggressive actions, including its “outsized” territorial claims on the border with India, even as it eyes the possibility of formalising the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad as an alliance, a senior state department official has said.

Deputy secretary of state Stephen Biegun said China has been “picking a fight right now on virtually every front” and has “exploited every opportunity they can from technology theft to assertion of national sovereignty over the territory and territorial waters of other countries”, and the US is in a “concerted effort to push back on all fronts”.

“Our strategy is to push back against China in virtually every domain. We’re doing it in the security area. We’re doing it in terms of outsized demands to claim sovereign territory, whether it’s in the Galwan Valley of India on the India-Chinese border, or whether it’s in the South Pacific. We’re also doing it economically,” he said.

Biegun made the remarks during a conversation with Richard Varma, former US envoy to India, at a leadership summit organised by the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) late on Monday.

Asked about China’s aggressive actions on the disputed border with India, in Hong Kong and across the Indo-Pacific, Biegun said the Donald Trump administration is focused on countering the “predatory practices from the Chinese economy” and is working to “balance out the US-China economic relationship”.

China was welcomed into global institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) two decades ago in order to help the country transition to a more rules-based order, but this “experiment has failed across all the domains”, he said.

He said that China “grew so quickly at the beginning of this century” that its “outsized influence in those institutions is instead seeking to transform those institutions to China’s interests”. This is unacceptable from the point of view of the US, which is pushing back in institutions such as the World Health Organization or World Intellectual Property Organization, he added.

China is repressing the Tibetans and Uyghurs, has breached an agreement with the UK on the transition of Hong Kong, and is “near hostilities with the government of India” and “in a state of hostility with the people of Taiwan”, Biegun said.

Replying to a question on the possibility of giving a formal shape to the Quad – an informal dialogue mechanism between Australia, India, Japan and the US – and whether the larger strategy behind it was counterbalancing the rise of China, Biegun said there was “certainly a temptation in governments” to formalise the mechanism.

The Indo-Pacific, he noted, is lacking in “strong multilateral structures” such as NATO or the European Union. “The strongest institutions in Asia oftentimes are not inclusive enough, and so…there is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalise a structure like this,” he said.

Biegun cautioned that responding to the threat of China itself would not be enough of a driver for such an organisation, and the goal of the US is to “create a critical mass around the shared values and interests…in a manner that attracts more countries in the Indo-Pacific…to be working in a common cause or even ultimately to align in a more structured manner”.

He said Washington would keep its “ambitions checked to start with a very strong set of members”, and a formal alliance would only “happen if the other countries are as committed as the United States”.

Biegun also noted that India had recognised that it “can’t be a passive player” in relation to developments in the Indo-Pacific region and this has driven the recent activities of the Quad, including a weekly meeting of the four members along with New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam on ways to counter the Covid-19 pandemic