China’s Strategies toward South Korea, Japan, and Australia in the Biden Era

As the Biden administration eyes ways to strengthen US alliances, China is weighing methods to drive a wedge between the US and its principal allies in the Indo-Pacific region—Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Its recent rhetoric toward them varies: harsh warnings toward Australia, a welcoming tone toward South Korea with underlying warnings, and the most positive narrative directed at Japan. Curiously, this pattern is the reverse of China’s approaches in the mid-2010s.

It was not many years ago that China was demonizing Japan over its rampage across China in the 1930s-40s (the center of “patriotic education”) and its claim to sovereignty over the East China Sea Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands. Abe Shinzo was received as the worst historical revisionist. South Korea did not arouse the same degree of animosity, but a dispute over history (Koguryo) was followed by a low-grade “culture war,” then aversion to conservative president Lee Myung-bak as unbalanced against China, and finally severe unofficial sanctions over its THAAD missile deployment. In contrast, Australia was treated as a “realistic” US ally with no reason for discord with China. A stunning shift since 2017 has reversed the order: Japan under Abe became the preferred partner, South Korea remained in the middle spot but better off under Moon Jae-in, and Australia dropped to the bottom, accused of standing in the vanguard of “Cold War” mentality.

There is a tendency in each of these countries to attribute changes in China’s attitudes to the way their own leaders “respect” or disrespect that country. Scott Morrison is criticized as provoking a harsh response toward Australia. Moon Jae-in has raised concern that he is too deferential toward China. Abe Shinzo long was blamed by many for being too tough on China before being blamed along with LDP elder statesman Nikai Toshihiro for going too far in reconciling with China, if in economics and politics but definitely not security. Missing in the usual obsession with policies directed at China is attention to China as the driving force in shaping each bilateral relationship.

Chinese publications do not hesitate to identify what about each of these three countries makes China angry. There is nothing said about what China has done to cause such behavior or how China could improve the situation with renewed soft power appeals. One finds some coverage of the economic carrots available through a better attitude toward China, but mostly authors warn of the costs of defiance. Sticks outweigh carrots, and the balance varies from country to country. In these writings there are not only criticisms about policies taken toward China—often to counter its aggressive behavior—but also warnings of red lines that could be crossed and invite reactions.

China approaches US allies to accelerate the break-up of the US-led world order, to boost what it deems to be economic globalization, and to impede the formation of blocs.1 Amid fragmentation into blocs, as regionalism reemerges, the US is seeking to exclude China economically while US financial globalization lingers, serving to isolate, contain, and beat down China’s rise. Whether one agrees with or defies China’s mainstream that the US is in sharp decline—citing its informal role in setting standards, its lead in technological capabilities, its financial market domination, its soft power, and its sense of crisis about its decline leading it to act—the search is under way to split the US and its key allies. If Biden is now inclined to shift from “hard encirclement” to “soft encirclement,” using new tactics, making new demands on allies, not for obeisance on bilateral issues but for multilateral steps to limit China’s aggression, it follows that China’s situation requires more outreach to US allies. “Wolf warrior” China may resort to threats, direct or implicit, even more than to blandishments, but a mixture of the two is visible in our three cases.

For an overview of the situation in the Indo-Pacific after Biden’s election, one article may suffice. Su Ge sees 2020 as the deepening development of a great transformation in the world beyond anything seen in 100 years. The pandemic accelerated changes in economics, technology, culture, security, and politics, leading the world into a transformative period and setting back economic globalization. China’s foreign environment has been complicated with tenser ties to the US as the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” is posing greater regional challenges. Australia is singled out as the state following the US and challenging China in varied ways, but other states differ in their thinking from the US and will block its “Indo-Pacific small NATO” desires. As for Japan, there are right-wing forces trying to stir up trouble and interfere with the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations. As the US is playing the Taiwan card and the Biden transition begins, the Taiwan issue has intensified, Su explains. One can surmise that China is focused on keeping Japan from tilting toward the US with positive appeals and strongly pressuring Australia against FOIP.2 In this typical article, tenser ties to US allies are feared, which applies to the ROK also.

The Indo-Pacific strategy of the US, clarified in a June Department of Defense report and a December State Department report, is treated as an extension and major intensification of the Asia-Pacific strategy pre-Trump and as distinct from Japan’s initial, more limited advance of this notion. It is more confrontational with China, more multi-dimensional with both an ideological and developmental system clash, and a more focused maritime battleline. It also advances the Quad as the key institutional framework. Trump did not change the basic direction of Obama’s regional approach but built on it, and Biden is expected to build on Trump’s approach with more integration of diverse elements and more multilateralism, if less forcefully confrontational. This widely shared reasoning in China helps to explain the responses foreseen in China’s writings.

On November 26, Huanqiu Shibao recognized that Biden’s team would replace “Asia-Pacific” with “Indo-Pacific,” making Asia the strategic center, but leaving uncertain how the US would manifest a leadership role.3Yet, iturged Biden to discard the “Indo-Pacific” and reembrace the “Asia-Pacific” concept since Asia-Pacific conveys more economic and cooperation connotations, while Indo-Pacific is more geopolitical with alliances the focus. Obama’s “rebalance to the Asia-Pacific” and TPP appeared constructive to many, the article adds, contradicting long-expressed views in China. The use of “free and open” with Indo-Pacific shows that it is about rising Quad security talks, military exercises, and relations with China. It is nakedly confrontational, and it is fragmenting the region. Indo-Pacific is about dividing the region with an anti-China alliance, which is rejected by most states. Most countries refuse to join. India is mainly responding to the Sino-Indian border tensions, not enlisting with the US. The article calls on the US to abandon this failed strategy, but it says nothing about Japan and Australia, its main partners. Australia may be viewed as a weaker link in this Quad strategy, more likely to buckle under China’s economic pressure, although if India is resistant and other states disinclined, it is not clear why Chinese should worry that Australia could have such significance. Along with the trilateralism feared in Northeast Asia, the Quad represents the threat critical to China’s warnings. Varying policies toward Australia, South Korea, and Japan reflect wedge-driving strategies.

Possible explanations

Why has Beijing turned more against Australia than Japan while still pressuring the ROK? A possible explanation for the latest shift in 2020 is China’s response to COVID-19 reactions in these countries. China is upset over South Korean ingratitude and criticisms,4 and it is angered over Australian calls for an investigation into the origins of the global pandemic, whereas the Japanese reaction to China, perhaps due to hopes for a Xi Jinping state visit, drew less concern. Yet, public opinion in all three countries has been among the most critical toward China’s role.
According to the Pew Research Center, just three developed countries stand apart for giving China bad marks in handling the coronavirus outbreak: Japan, South Korea, and Australia. While the median for 14 countries is 61 percent of respondents critical of China, Japan and South Korea recorded 79 percent and Australia 73 percent in the summer of 2020 before the onslaught of Chinese attacks on Australia. Another finding was that Japan and South Korea tallied the top percentage of respondents with no confidence in Xi Jinping (84 and 83%) with Australia not far behind at 79% (a 25% jump from 2019, second only to the US jump of 27%).5 In 2015, views of China were strikingly different: Australia at 33% and South Korea at 37% stood as the least unfavorable along with the UK (37%), while Japan at 89% was by far the most unfavorable. Australian negativity rose 48% in five years—half of that in 2019-20. South Korean negative views rose 38%, much of that in 2015-17 with 12% added in 2019-20. Japanese responses grew slightly less unfavorable, notably in 2016-18 before a negative turn was recorded in 2018-19.

Another possible explanation is priorities of Sinocentrism. In 2015, historical memory appeared to be a driver: Japan, the main villain, as expected; South Korea, newly reminded of the Korean War; and Australia, spared historical reminders of humiliating China. In 2016-17, South Korea jumped to the top as a target, ostensibly for becoming a security threat but perhaps more for defying the greatest expectations of Sinocentrism, having again been viewed as a vassal-state:

Xi’s orientation has a strong dose of historical consciousness, blaming “myths” generated in South Korea since 1945…Instead of acknowledging that China has upped its demands on South Korea as China’s power has grown, all the blame is put on Seoul for: not accepting China’s rise, having illegitimate great power aspirations in Northeast Asia, and being the real challenger to the regional order but blaming China for it. The Sinocentric and Cold War roots of Chinese thinking are clarified by comments that Koreans share the same culture as Chinese and have deviated due to westernization. Similar charges are addressed at Seoul as at Tokyo: aspiring to be a political great power, viewing Northeast Asia from a Cold War lens, and striving to contain China with the US. Yet the demands are more intense; Seoul is expected to be more obedient and is seen as more vulnerable.6

A third explanation is a response to the most recent perceived security booster for the US. It was Japan in the early 2010s, South Korea with THAAD deployment but less so after Moon Jae-in promised the “three noes” at the end of 2017, and Australia as the focus shifted to US strategic pursuit of the Quad at the end of the decade of the 2010s:

Seoul is urged to further clarify that it is against US alliances becoming more multilateral and that it will not participate in the US missile defense system, as it already has done by eschewing a trilateral alliance with Japan. On the South China Sea, Seoul’s caution in supporting freedom of navigation, except in principle, is welcomed; yet it is warned not to take a public position that might lean toward the US, and told that it is time to reach a consensus with China precisely on freedom of navigation to increase mutual trust. Any sign of support for the position of Japan on the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute with China would show a lack of respect and lead, it is hinted, at retaliation.7

Each country is urged to withstand US pressure that could lead to a new Cold War. The burden is on Seoul to prevent a new Cold War by boosting security ties to Beijing, and, so far, it has used restraint. Japan is given a longer leash, since pressure would backfire. It is Australia of late that draws the most wrath after expectations proved too optimistic.

In stages, China links trade to security—first with rare-earth metals blocked to Japan, then with retaliation against THAAD, and finally with the most intense sanctions aimed at Australia. One reads warnings in Chinese sources of how economic punishments could be intensified for security infringements. For example, one Chinese article intimated that:

Bilateral trade totaling well over $300 billion with China’s imports in excess of $200 billion is now linked to security, and the wrong choice could lead China to insist on narrowing its huge deficit and cut back the massive flow of Chinese tourists to South Korea. There are warnings that unbalanced trade cannot be sustained.8

The reasoning is that economic beneficence is something bestowed by China, which can be withdrawn if deference is insufficient or security relations are deemed problematic. In the case of South Korea, China runs a huge deficit and sends large numbers of tourists. In Australia’s case, China is an irreplaceable market, also leading to a trade deficit. Japan is the exception, on which China, arguably, feels more dependent or less apt to use its clout.


Many Japanese write that China’s policy toward their country is inversely related to the state of its relationship with the United States. Rather hopeful about US bilateral relations in the second Obama term, China applied more pressure on Japan. Increasingly pessimistic about Sino-US ties in the Trump period, Xi Jinping elected to boost ties with Japan. China leans to exerting pressure if there are no intervening factors, but it considers Japan a moderating influence on the US when Sino-US tensions are deeper. The situation in 2021 continues to favor a soft line toward Japan, but moves by Suga to coordinate with Biden’s new strategy could lead to a swift turnabout.

The initial Chinese response to US-Japan ties in the Trump era was uncertain; Trump was seen as angry over Abe leaning to Hillary and Abe rushed to ingratiate himself to limited effect. The result was a widening gap with growing distrust in the US. China saw an opportunity. It also saw a big opening in the deterioration of Japan-ROK ties from Moon’s rise in 2017 to 2020, expecting that to continue for many years. Given Abe’s clear penchant for summit diplomacy to showcase proactive leadership, Xi Jinping seized the chance.

The transformative force emanating from Japan of late, in Chinese eyes, is a military shift to a more robust defense posture and wider and closer defense partnerships. To delay that China can calm concerns about its maritime expansion, but it has done little of that. It can also capitalize on pro-business elements in Japan to push for improved relations. That has been the track taken. At the helm of the LDP are leaders such as Nikai Toshihiro, prioritizing the interests of businesses heavily invested in China and inclined to cooperate with China abroad. This offers an opening.

China appears to have chosen “strategic patience” toward Japan,9 perhaps because it expects to make use of the time or to drive a wedge. Yet, it has no reservations about behavior in the East China and South China seas and toward Hong Kong and Taiwan that makes Japanese wary. The pressure on Japan, thus, keeps mounting even as Xi Jinping dangles a summit in Japan as a lure.

In Guoji Anquan Yanjiu, No. 6, 2020, Shi Yinhong and colleagues emphasized the importance of stabilizing Sino-Japanese relations against the backdrop of worsening Sino-US relations. This time of pandemic offers an opportunity to deepen economic cooperation with Japan, support which the Suga administration will appreciate. High-level meetings and summits will drive these ties forward, including the promised state visit when conditions permit. Difference in US and Japanese strategy and attention also leave an opening, e.g. on responding to the South China Sea conflict, the East China Sea problem, and the Taiwan problem. Preparations are needed to keep illusions from taking root in Japan and to preserve the foundation of Sino-Japanese relations.10 No doubt is left that China’s ties to Japan can ameliorate strains in Sino-US relations.

The fact that Japan aspires to be a political great power, once deemed to be a threat to China, is now viewed as a plus, limiting its likelihood of following the US wholeheartedly. Japan is on the front line of the changing regional order. In the second half of 2017 Abe was feeling pressure from Trump on trade and countered with improved ties to China, e.g., by supporting BRI while cooperating in third markets and supporting summit exchanges from 2018. In 2020, Trump toughened his policy toward China, and Abe responded to the strategic needs of his ally in security policy, and despite some vagueness, in the South China Sea and on Taiwan. In September Defense Secretary Kono Taro said that China has already become a strategic threat to Japan. Some changes in trade policy also accompanied the new Sino-US environment. Thus, Japan’s policy is two-sided. Suga took over in September promising stable relations and to continue Abe’s line. He will try to find some balance between the US and China, while advancing the Quad. Meanwhile, in the pandemic and in pursuit of successful Olympics, Japan needs China’s support. Under Suga new uncertainty in Japan adds to uncertainty in Sino-Japanese relations. Over the long term, Japan’s China policy will mainly agree with US policy, but there are differences in timing and attention. In the 1970s Japan rushed ahead to normalize ties. Pressure on human rights differs. The US presses on the South China Sea, but Japan seeks more US focus on the Diaoyu Islands. Japan seeks political status and economic benefits, realizing that no decoupling is possible, conclude the authors.

South Korea

Chinese views of South Korean attitudes toward China are of considerable consequence, and a likely source of consternation. Despite an upbeat atmosphere at the official level, Korean public opinion has turned decidedly more negative. While the Chinese point to a pattern of mutual positivity and cooperation about the pandemic, the Korean public has taken a clearly negative view of China’s role in it. Moreover, overall opinion on China has deteriorated, after the two-year stabilization of attitudes following the abrupt drop-off in 2016. Contrary to the pattern elsewhere, people under the age of 50 are most negative. The mood in China is that the troubled downturn in relations in 2016-17 has largely been overcome and that recent diplomatic visits point the way to a boost in the relationship in 2021. This message is reassuring to Chinese public opinion, but there is also an undertone that South Korea may be tempted to waver due to factors such as negative public opinion of China, the loss of political control by Moon Jae-in as a lame duck, or pressure from its ally, the United States. How South Korean attitudes are shaped must be closely evaluated. In the course of the 2020 pandemic they have deteriorated; in the past year, Koreans have seen a 9 percent drop in confidence in Xi to do the right thing in world affairs.11

Having succeeded in winning major concessions from Moon in December 2017 and well aware that in 2022 a conservative could be elected and reinforce South Korea’s alliance with the US, Beijing is careful to hold out hope that Xi Jinping will visit soon and bilateral relations may improve. Despite the large gap that has opened between wary public opinion and the Moon administration, policy toward China rests on aspirations toward North Korea and the ideological affinity of Moon’s elite supporters as well as fear of economic retaliation. Should a new president eschew the first two of these and yield to Biden’s insistence, China would have much to lose. Even so, Beijing feels a need to flex the dagger of economic pain as a reminder.

Chinese see Seoul as on the frontline in facing pressure from Washington as the alliance weakens, whether in the throes of THAAD or in demands to join in the US moves in the South China Sea. They seek to keep the pressure on Seoul to remind it of the price it must pay if it yields to Washington but to refrain from over-exerting pressure and driving it in that direction. As I wrote in 2020, Seoul is targeted by China differently than Tokyo for at least four reasons: 1) it is considered a more integral part of the Sinocentric order, given historical ties and geography; 2) vulnerability to North Korea gives China more leverage; 3) its economic dependency is greater; and 4) it is not viewed as a power of the same order as Japan or with the same degree of internal political cohesion as Japan.12 In the opinion of Eun A Jo, Moon has responded with “double allegiance,” but that “as Seoul continues to pursue North Korea, satisfying both sides of the increasingly belligerent conflict will become a tough—possibly untenable—balancing act.” She stresses that “China’s cooperation on North Korea will be tied to South Korea’s deference, even at the expense of the United States,” and that “neither Biden’s win in the upcoming presidential election nor Xi’s attempts to capitalize on the narrowing scope of the US-South Korea alliance is propitious for Moon’s strategy of double allegiance.”13 Seoul is on the frontlines with implied threats.


Australia’s geography gives rise to a duality whereby the island continent feels secure to the extent that there are no immediate threats along its borders and insecure to the extent that its distance away from traditional allies in Europe and America induces what Allan Gyngell terms the “fear of abandonment.”14 In contrast, China borders the largest number of countries in the world. Of the fourteen neighboring countries, only Moscow and Pyongyang are considered as political allies with which Beijing shares only a modicum of trust. For this reason alone, China has been identified as the “loneliest superpower” in the world.15

Australia and China have shared friendly bilateral relations in the absence of historical enmity and instead great complementarity in their respective economic structures. Australia was among the few developed economies to avoid a painful recession following the global financial crisis in 2008 due in part to China’s demand for Australian iron ore to supply steel.16 Yet, the present state of the Australia-China relationship has been described as a “generational breakdown” in bilateral ties.17 There has been no official dialogue at the ministerial level for more than eight months as China responds to perceived grievances by disrupting exports worth more than AU$20 billion per year. Beijing’s retaliatory duties on Australian exports represent the latest round of coercive measures against Canberra for its policy position on a range of issues from denying Huawei a role in building Australia’s 5G telecommunications network to introducing foreign interference laws which strengthen the nation’s democratic infrastructure, calling for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, and condemning human rights violations in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet.18 The renewal of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, between the United States, Australia, India, and Japan is further seen by Beijing as a NATO-style attempt to contain China.

The demand from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison that Beijing apologize for the “truly repugnant” tweet made by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian further marked the nadir of political and diplomatic relations between Canberra and Beijing.19 The Twitter post alluded to the recently commissioned Brereton Report by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force in a doctored image of an Australian SAS soldier holding a knife over an Afghan child. Australian commentators who view the deterioration in Australia-China relations as the consequence of a “war of words” argue that this breakdown could have been easily averted had Canberra demonstrated more respect towards Beijing or prudence in the wording of ministerial statements.20 The corollary inferred is that Australia is acting to please the United States rather than responding to actions taken by China and defending its national interests.21

Chinese state-sponsored media outlets such as Global Times have enthusiastically picked up this narrative, assigning blame for the sharp decline in bilateral relations to Australia and its “microphone” or megaphone diplomacy.22 Opinion pieces have relentlessly caricatured Australia as the “foot soldier,” “deputy sheriff” and “lap dog” of the United States, casting the former as an anti-China “pioneer” in a condescending light.23 One editorial draws a deliberate comparison between Australia and other US allies with similar values in the region, underlining that “the conditions for cooperation between China and Australia are far better than between China and Japan… [and] Australia-China ties can’t compare to ties between South Korea and China.”24 As was posed in mid-2020 to Frances Adamson, former Australian ambassador to China and secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the questions arise: has China made up its mind about Australia? What is the state of debate within China?25

Examining the writings of Chinese foreign policy thinkers, one notices the tendency to project China’s own political culture—in particular, its Marxist-Leninist understanding of top-down hierarchy—onto analyses of Australian foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific. For example, Yu Lei contends, “[t]o the extent that working within a US-led Indo-Pacific system enables Australia to rise through the ranks, fulfilling US interests will ensure that Australia fulfil its own.” Specifically, the author suggests that Australia-China relations are not simply a function of US-China relations, but in fact the crucial factor in the political calculus of successive Australian leaders. Alluding to reports of US interventions in the downfall of Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull in Australian media, Yu boldly states, “[t]hat the leader of the Australian government will find it difficult to govern with stability without the approval and support of the United States is an open secret within Canberra circles.”26

Contrary to reductionist views propagated by Global Times, Yu instead emphasizes that Australia is no longer a “mechanical follower” of the United States and is assuming an agenda-setting role within the alliance. Beyond domestic politics, Australia’s pursuit of alliances with superpowers—such as with the United Kingdom and then the United States—is understood as part of the nation-building effort to cultivate a political status far exceeding its national capabilities in the global power structure. Yu points out that the Australia-US alliance is not necessarily built upon affinities of culture, history or values, but determined by pragmatic considerations for Australian political, economic, and security interests. These enduring national interests, weighed against the exigencies of international politics, are seen as unlikely to be altered by changes in political leadership. Yu concludes Australia-China relations will remain on low levels of rapport for a period of time as the Australian government continues to implement a “hedging” strategy post COVID-19, to encourage US engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, and to maintain Australia’s political status in the global power structure as a US ally.

After Graham Fletcher, Australian ambassador to China, communicated to Hu Xijin, editor of Global Times, that Australia rejects the inaccurate and inflammatory coverage of Australia by the newspaper and that Australia’s attitude on many issues related to China is different from that of the United States,27 adding that national interest-based position on the US alliance cannot be altered, an editorial on the following day revealed a palpable softening of Chinese rhetoric: “What’s surprising is that China and Australia have seemingly fallen afoul of each other for no reason at all.” Geographically, it noted, China and Australia are far away from each other, yet have developed sound trade with no historical enmity, as with Japan and South Korea. The editorial concluded that “there are enough reasons and resources for the two countries to maintain a friendly and cooperative relationship for a long time.”28

On December 17, Huanqiu Shibao wrote about Australia’s accusations against China at the WTO amid intense frictions between the two countries. As bilateral relations continuously deteriorate, Australia charges “political retaliation.”29 This politicizes a trade issue. Among all countries, Australia was first to use security as an excuse to prevent Huawei 5G. Australia has far more restrictions on China’s exports than vice versa. It is damaging political relations and using that to strengthen ties to the US. The result is a security and ideological clash. Australia has put itself on the frontline of the clash between the West and China.

A January 2021 article warned Australia about its distorted view of China, ideological bias, and erroneous separation of economics and politics.30 It must choose between viewing China as a threat or a partner. To see China as a threat has nothing to do with China’s behavior but is solely a result of a cold war mentality and the failure to make an independent choice from the US. This shows that the real problem, as seen in China, is not the words of Morrison but the strategic role Australia is playing in the Quad and in coordination with the US, as Biden aims to bolster ties.


On CSIS’s Capital Cable on February 18, 2020, Ambassador Wi Sunglac compared the positions between Beijing at 9:00 and Washington at 3:00 of Seoul, Canberra, and Tokyo. He argued that Canberra is choosing 2:30, Tokyo 2:00, and Seoul is misjudging the situation by not choosing 1:30, befitting its circumstances, and instead leaning closer to India’s choice of 12:30.31 Another speaker saw Seoul’s position as close to accommodation of China, with some appeasement. The explanation is that progressive governments lean more toward China, causing China to restrain itself despite continued application of some of the sanctions imposed after the THAAD decision. Some in Japan also see their policy toward China as too soft because of the influence of an LDP faction or even some hedging by Abe during the Trump era. In contrast, some in Australia blame Scott Morrison for unduly antagonizing China. Thus, the different balances found between the US and China can reflect leaders’ decisions in the countries under pressure from China. Biden may press for allies to lean more to the US side, adding another variable besides China’s will.

It would be a mistake, however, to fail to focus attention on China’s own calculations in these bilateral relations. Its analysts put relation with US allies in the Indo-Pacific in three regional frameworks: 1) the FOIP framework and the Quad, seen as containment and a mini-NATO; 2) the framework of Taiwan, seen as the most dangerous point of confrontation; 3) the North Korean framework, seen as the most explosive setting where a third party could endanger peace. Australia is viewed in the first context, Japan primarily in the second context, and South Korea in the third. Control over South Korea has been easiest, given its great need for China in the face of North Korea, but pressure must be kept in light of US influence and China’s impatience for more “balanced” relations. The main goal for Japan is to keep its Taiwan policy under check, which is made easier by keeping it focused on economic benefits. Australia is the least under control and considered a lynchpin for the Quad and of tilting India away from China.

A possible reason to target Australia is a recent priority on blocking the US Indo-Pacific strategy.
As for the Quad, China feigns that this is not a great concern but its conduct may suggest some strategic calculations in responding. The first foreign minister Quad meeting in New York in September 2019 drew attention, as did the second in Tokyo in October 2020, which regularized the process and suggested to China that South Korea is targeted as a future member along with New Zealand and Vietnam.32 In November 2020 the Quad states proceeded to joint military exercises. China reacted harshly to Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and no less so to Trump’s FOIP. These are seen as “mini-NATOs” aimed at containing China, provoking a new cold war with both economic and security dimensions as well as ideological ones. Australia is caught in China’s crosshairs because it was identified in 2020 as the embodiment of FOIP and the lynchpin of the Quad not only for its strategic choices but for boosting the ideological challenge to China.

As Rory Medcalf writes, the map of Asia is being reimagined.33 The regional architecture of the Indo-Pacific paves the way for a multipolar future in which no country faces a binary decision, at the expense of their own national interests, in the midst of a sharp, strategic competition between two superpowers.34 None of the three allies is ready to fully back the United States at 3:00, but finding an enduring balance between 1:00 and 3:00 will depend on national circumstances and leadership as well as on US and Chinese policies and pressure. For now, Seoul has an unstable balance prone to change, but Tokyo and Canberra also face difficult choices not only because the
US is poised to launch a grand strategy but also because China is ready to intensify its pressure. A change in leadership in any of the three countries could somewhat shift the balance within the span of 1:00 to 3:00, and the effectiveness of Biden’s diplomacy could lead to a tilt closer to the latter point, but more may depend on Xi Jinping’s willingness to restrain “wolf warrior” actions.

1. Li Xiao, Yu Xiao, Wang Da, Jiang Yang, “新一届美国政府对外政策及影响前瞻笔谈,” Dongbeiya Luntan, No. 1, 2021.

2. Su Ge, 动荡变革 多事之秋——2020年国际形势与中国外交 ——2020 年国际形势与中国外交, Dangdai Shijie, No. 1, 2021.

3. Ibid.

4. Dong Xiangrong and Jiang Jiawei, “Perceptions and Misperceptions between China and South Korea amid the COVID-19 Pandemic,” The Asan Forum, January 11, 2021.

5. “Summer 2020 Global Attitudes Survey,” Pew Research Center. October 5, 2020.

6. Gilbert Rozman, “Sino-ROK Relations on the 75th Anniversary of the End of WWII,” The Asan Forum, March 19, 2020.

7. Ibid. Also see Bi Yingda, “Chaoxian bandao xin xingshixia shenhua Zhonghan anchuan hezuode sikao,” Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, No. 10, 2019, pp. 35-41.

8. Ibid. 

9. Li Xiao, Yu Xiao, Wang Da, Jiang Yang, “新一届美国政府对外政策及影响前瞻笔谈,” p. 23.

10. Shi Yinhong, Tang Yongsheng, Ni Feng, Wu Baiyi, Fu Mengzi, Li Wenliang, Zhao Kejin, Song Guoyou, An Gang, Jiang Yi, and Xu Wansheng, “Zhongmei guanxi zouxiang yu guoji geju zhibian,” Guoji Anquan Yanjiu, No. 6, 2020, p. 37.

11. “Summer 2020 Global Attitudes Survey.”

12. Gilbert Rozman, “Sino-ROK Relations on the 75th Anniversary of the End of WWII.”

13. Eun A Jo, “Double Allegiance: Moon Jae-in’s Strategy amid US-China Rivalry,” The Asan Forum, August 27, 2020.

14. Allan Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World Since 1942 (Melbourne: La Trobe University Press, 2017).

15. Rowan Callick, “Loneliest superpower,” The Australian, May 21, 2014,

16. Dallas Rogers, “Infrastructure prime minister must face Chinese elephant in the room,” The Conversation, 13 September 2013,

17. Cameron Steward, “Chinese bullying ‘won’t be tolerated’,” The Australian, September 12, 2020,

18.   Jeffrey Wilson, Adapting Australia to an era of geoeconomic competition (Perth: Perth US-Asia Centre, 2021),’s-progress/PU-184-Geoecon-201207-PRESS.pdf.aspx?lang=en-AU, p. 18.

19. Stan Grant, Stephen Dziedzic and Bang Xiao, “Everything you want to know about Australia-China trade war but were too afraid to ask,” ABC News, December 10, 2020,

20. Ben Doherty, “China and Australia: how a war of words over coronavirus turned to threats of a trade war,” The Guardian, May 3, 2020,

21. Stephen Dziedzic, “Chinese diplomat Wang Xining’s National Press Club address blames Canberra for fractured relations with Beijing,” ABC News, August 27, 2020,

22. Guo Chunmei, “‘Microphone diplomacy’ no help to Australia’s national interests,” Global Times, December 10, 2020,

23. Chen Hong, “Aussie joins US crusade against China but receives only hollow praise,” Global Times, November 19, 2020,

24. “Among US allies, why is Australia keen to attack China?” Global Times, December 9, 2020,

25. Allan Gyngell and Darren Lim, “Frances Adamson, DFAT Secretary, on our 50th episode,” Australian Institute of International Affairs, June 25, 2020,

26. Yu Lei, “下澳大利亚对冲策略的建构与影响——基于权力架构理论,” Tongji Zhanlue Yanjiu, No. 6, 2020.

27. “Australia Is Most Unfriendly Country besides the United States,” The Australian, December 11, 2020.

28. “Among US allies, why is Australia keen to attack China?” Global Times, December 9, 2020,

29. “Ao qu WTO eren xian gaozhuang ying su bianshi,” Huanqiu Shibao, December 17, 2020.

30. Xin Ao, “对澳需要听其言,更要观其行,” Huanqiu Shibao, January 13, 2021.

31. “The Capital Cable No. 20, CSIS Online, February 18, 2021.

32. Wei Zongyou, “Baideng Yazhou jiemeng zhengce de bian yu bubian,” Huanqiu Shibao, November 23, 2020.

33. Rory Medcalf, “America’s Indo-Pacific challenge,” The Asan Forum,December 30, 2020,

34. Rory Medcalf, Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won’t Map the Future (Melbourne: La Trobe University Press, 2020).