(AP Photo by Evan Vucci / President Joe Biden walks to the Quad summit with, from left, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, in the East Room of the White House on Sept. 24, 2021, in Washington.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden hosted a summit meeting Friday that could turn out to be a watershed — but you might have missed it.

The meeting brought together the leaders of a deliberately low-key group called "the Quad": the United States, Japan, India and Australia.

U.S. officials downplayed the session, describing it as "an informal gathering of leading democracies in the Indo-Pacific."

China wasn't fooled. Its diplomats have spent months denouncing the Quad as a Cold War-style alliance aimed at containing Beijing's rise.

And they're right.

Biden and his fellow Quad leaders never publicly uttered the word "China," but the Quad is all about containment. It seeks to blunt China's growing influence, deter it from launching military adventures and prevent it from muscling the United States and other countries out of Asia's growing markets.

The Quad isn't a military alliance — formally, at least. A Biden aide who briefed reporters made that point three times in 20 minutes.

But last month, four navies staged a massive military exercise in the Philippine Sea east of China. The participants were the same four: the United States, Japan, India and Australia.

All four are democracies. More to the point, all four have been alarmed to see China exert economic and military power to get its way — from seizing islands and building bases on contested territory in the South China Sea to threatening Taiwan and attacking Indian army positions in the Himalayas.

In Australia, the muscle China used was economic: After Australia called for an investigation of the origins of the coronavirus, Beijing retaliated by cutting imports of Australian beef and called on the Canberra government to stifle "anti-China statements."

The naked pressure backfired; the Aussies got their backs up and decided to move closer to the United States.

One result was Aukus, the new military partnership of Australia, Britain and the United States, whose first big project is building nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian navy.

Containing China has become a top priority of U.S. foreign policy, with coalition-building as Biden's instrument of choice. That shouldn't be surprising; it's one theater in which the United States enjoys a clear advantage.

China is very good at many things: economic growth, large-scale construction projects, acquiring foreign technology, cyberespionage. But it hasn't been successful at making friends. It's a superpower with client states but no real allies, unless you count Pakistan and, recently, Russia.

That helps explain the fury of Chinese denunciations of the Quad, Aukus and other groupings: It's a game they can't play.

The question is whether China will launch a military challenge against the new coalition before the U.S. has time to consolidate it.

The test could come over Taiwan.

"The standard view in Asia is that Taiwan is the canary in the coal mine," said Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official whose new book, "The Strategy of Denial," focuses on the U.S.-China confrontation.

Chinese President Xi Jinping "can see that the trends are not favorable," he said.

If this is beginning to sound like the bad old days of the Cold War, when the United States and its allies obsessed over the prospect of a Soviet invasion of Europe, it should.

No historical analogy is perfect. Our competition-plus-conflict with China is complicated by the two countries' deep economic entanglement, which wasn't the case with the Soviet Union.

But in most other respects, the comparison fits: two nuclear superpowers that disagree over ideology, often view global power as a zero-sum game and — in the case of the United States — build coalitions to reinforce their influence.

"We are not seeking a new Cold War," Biden said at the United Nations last week. But thanks to Xi's assertiveness, he's gotten one — and no matter how soothing his words, he's acting accordingly.

Tribune Content Agency