India makes China point, US hints at ‘formal’ Quad
Members of the Quad on Tuesday pushed for a rules-based global order and peaceful resolution of disputes in the face of China’s growing aggression across the Indo-Pacific, even as the US indicated it wants to formalise and expand the informal grouping that includes India, Australia and Japan.
Though US secretary of state Mike Pompeo was the only one of the four foreign ministers to name China in his opening remarks, it was evident the shadow of Beijing’s assertive actions hung large over the second ministerial meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in Tokyo.
Against the backdrop of the five-month border standoff with China, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said in his opening remarks that India and the other members of Quad remain committed to a rules-based international order, “underpinned by the rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, and peaceful resolution of disputes”.
Pompeo was particularly scathing in his criticism of China, saying it was critical for partners in the Quad to collaborate to “protect our people and partners from the [Chinese Communist Party’s] exploitation, corruption, and coercion” that had been witnessed in the South and East China Sea, “the Mekong, the Himalayas [and] the Taiwan Straits”.
He also said the crisis created by the “pandemic that came from Wuhan” was made “infinitely worse by the Chinese Communist Party’s cover-up”. The US will support the others in the Quad to counter the pandemic and rebuild their economies, Pompeo added.
Australian foreign minister Marise Payne, in her opening remarks, said her country believes in a “region governed by rules, not power”. She added: “We believe in the fundamental importance of individual rights and in a region in which disputes are resolved according to international law.”
In a separate statement issued after the meeting, Payne said the ministers reiterated that “states cannot assert maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)” – a reference to China’s actions in South China Sea.
Ahead of the foreign ministers’ meeting, Pompeo said in an interview with Nikkei Asia that the US wants to formalise and expand the Quad.
“Once we’ve institutionalised what we’re doing — the four of us together — we can begin to build out a true security framework,” he said, adding that the Quad is a “fabric” that can “counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us”.
Other nations can become part of this fabric at “the appropriate time”, he suggested. Pompeo also said that China’s actions in the region amounted to “bullying”. He added, “This is the Chinese using coercive power. This isn’t how great nations operate. So our mission is to reduce that.”
Japanese foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi’s remarks at a news conference on Tuesday, too, hinted at the possible expansion of the Quad. Japan wants a free and open Indo-Pacific based on rule of law and freedom of navigation, and “like-minded countries [which] share these values can participate in this vision”, he said.
“This time we are having a quadrilateral meeting, Japan, US, Australia and India... if [other] countries can share these values and rules, I think we can expand the framework,” Motegi said.
The remarks of the Quad ministers are certain to irk China, whose officials have likened the grouping to a “mini NATO” and said its activities are aimed at targeting third parties.
A statement issued by China’s foreign ministry in Mandarin on Tuesday evening called for peace and win-win cooperation instead of “forming exclusive cliques”. It said multilateral cooperation should be open, inclusive and transparent, as well as conducive to mutual understanding and trust between regional countries instead of targeting third parties.
“We hope the relevant countries can think more of the regional countries’ common interests and contribute to regional peace, stability and development rather than doing the opposite,” the Chinese statement added.
Despite the US push to formalise the Quad, the grouping continues to be loose and informal in nature, which has raised questions among experts as to whether it can effectively work as a counterweight to China. Following Tuesday’s meeting, there was no joint statement and the four countries issued separate readouts.
Jaishankar said in his opening remarks that the events of 2020 have demonstrated how “imperative it is for like-minded countries to coordinate responses to the various challenges that the pandemic has brought to the fore”. He added, “As vibrant and pluralistic democracies with shared values, our nations have collectively affirmed the importance of maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific.”
The significance of the four foreign ministers meeting in person, at a time when foreign travel by world leaders is rare, was highlighted by Jaishankar, who said the gathering in Tokyo is “testimony to the importance that these consultations have gained, particularly in recent times”.
A statement issued by the external affairs ministry said the foreign ministers discussed the post-Covid-19 world order and sought a coordinated response to the challenges, including financial problems, emanating from the pandemic. They discussed the sharing of best practices to combat Covid-19, increasing the resilience of supply chains, and enhancing access to affordable vaccines, medicines and medical equipment, the statement said.
The ministers exchanged views on regional issues, connectivity, humanitarian assistance, maritime security, health security and counterterrorism, and reiterated their support to the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and their readiness to work towards realising a common vision for the Indo-Pacific, the statement added.
A readout from Japan’s foreign ministry said that during the three-hour meeting, including a working dinner, the ministers agreed on broadening cooperation with more countries for a free and open Indo-Pacific as well as practical cooperation quality infrastructure and maritime security. The four sides also agreed to hold regular consultations.
Former ambassador Neelam Deo, director of the foreign policy think tank Gateway House, highlighted the significance of the Quad foreign ministers holding a second meeting within a year as well as Japan’s new government hosting the event.
“As an expert pointed out, China was the godfather of the Quad at the time of its inception and it remains the motivating factor for the Quad even today, since it has been going everywhere picking a fight,” she said.
“But now the parties in the Quad are not the only ones who realise China has become more difficult to deal with. This meeting will result in greater focus on economic cooperation and collaboration on issues such as critical materials to reduce over-dependence on one source, and all of this is good for India,” Deo said.