China and the Quad countries: A decade of bilateral relations

The Political Relations Index (PRI) is a measure of the level of political cooperation and conflict between two governments. There are two PRIs for each bilateral relationship: here we focus on China towards a foreign country and a foreign country towards China.

The PRI is constructed from news event data using the Global Database on Events, Location and Tone. Each news event has a score between +10, which represents extreme cooperation such as the formation of military alliances, and -10, which represents extreme conflict such as the declaration of war.

Additionally, the PRI is normalised to remove effects of increasing media coverage over time and differences in media coverage between each bilateral relationship.

In this article, we focus on China’s PRI with four countries: Australia, India, Japan, and the United States (US) between 2010 and 2020. These four countries form the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which was revived in 2017 to counter China. Despite deepening economic ties with China during the decade, each of these countries have experienced frequent episodes of political conflict with China.

Overall, three of the four Quad countries (Australia, India, and the US) show an inverted U-shape during the decade, with cooperation rising for the first half of the decade before falling to record lows by 2020. Unlike the other Quad countries, Chinese relations towards Japan in this period exhibit no clear upward or downward trend across the decade.

Across all four countries, the China towards foreign country PRI saw a larger fall relative to the foreign country towards China PRI in the second half of the decade.

This graph focuses on the Australia-China case between 2010 and 2020. The blue line shows the Australia towards China PRI and the red line shows China towards Australia PRI.

Bilateral relations saw cooperation rising between 2010-2014 with the two countries signing a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement in late 2014, before falling to record low by 2020.

The Chinese government PRI towards Australia in 2020 is the lowest among the Quad countries. It has decreased rapidly from a high in 2014 when the two countries signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement. From the Australian government perspective, there is an inverted U-shaped curve, but the deterioration is not as rapid as from the Chinese perspective.

Several commentators have suggested that the Australian government’s decision in 2018 to ban Huawei from participating in Australia’s 5G roll-out has resulted in a downward spiral in political relations. Since 2018, the decrease in the China towards Australia PRI has become relatively larger than the decrease in the Australia towards China PRI. However, this graph also suggests that the downward trend began earlier in 2015.

Overall, Australia-China relations have continued to deteriorate with flashpoints in 2020, including the Australian government’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

This graph focuses on the China-US case, which has the largest PRI variation among the Quad countries, increasing rapidly from 1.3 in 2010 to 2.5 in 2012 during the final years of President Obama’s first term.

The PRI more than halved over Obama’s second term as sceptical American attitudes emerged towards China’s Belt and Road Initiative along with China’s decision to remove presidential term limits.

The first two years of the Trump presidency (2017 and 2018) saw the US PRI towards China drop considerably. An even greater drop in the Chinese PRI towards the US was seen in these

years as trade wars loomed before recovering in 2019 with the signing of a trade agreement.

With the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, cooperation levels again dropped drastically, with the Chinese PRI towards the US reaching a level below zero for the first time in the decade. Similar to the Australian case, from the US government’s perspective, relations with China deteriorated less rapidly but are still at their lowest level in 2020.

This graph focuses on the China-India case between 2010 and 2020. This relationship saw the highest levels of cooperation in 2010 and 2013, however since then have experienced a consistent decline over the rest of the decade.

The election of the Modi administration in 2014, which has generally regarded China with suspicion, and increasing instances of border disputes have contributed to the decline since 2013. In 2017, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor further inflamed relations as China began building infrastructure in the disputed Kashmir region.

In 2020 the worst border clashes between Indian and Chinese military forces in decades occurred, with dozens of Indian and Chinese troops killed. This led to Indian consumer boycotts and the Indian government introducing unilateral economic sanctions against Chinese tech companies.

This graph focuses on the China-Japan case. Unlike the other countries, relations between China and Japan in this period fluctuated around a stable mean, with no clear upward or downward trend across the decade.

Attempts to resolve the Senkaku Boat Collision incident in 2010 saw high levels of cooperation between China and Japan. However, Japan’s announcements of nationalising the islands in 2012 led to a sharp deterioration in relations. Disputes over the island have continued throughout this period, leading to fluctuations in the PRI in both directions.

The increased bilateral cooperation between China and Japan during the COVID-19 pandemic saw a noticeable increase in the Japanese PRI towards China. However, this was not reciprocated, with the Chinese PRI continuing to decline since 2018.