Canberra/New York: A bid by four of the Indo-Pacific’s largest democracies to band together as a counter to China’s growing might has received increased impetus after the so-called Quad group met for the first time at the ministerial-level in New York.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo met with the foreign ministers of Japan, India and Australia on the sidelines of the United National General Assembly on Thursday, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said in an emailed statement.
“The ‘Quad’ countries reaffirmed their commitment to shared values and cooperation on maritime security, infrastructure and connectivity in support of rules-based frameworks,” Payne said. They discussed “efforts to maintain and promote an open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific,” and agreed to hold regular ministerial meetings, she said.
The elevation of the discussion from official-level talks suggests the previously informal framework is being strengthened to improve intelligence-gathering and present a united front on regional security issues.
At the forefront of those issues is China, which has been increasing its economic influence, military might and diplomatic footprint in the Indo-Pacific. The concept of the Quad was first generated more than a decade ago during the George W. Bush administration before it went into a hiatus. Its recent revival reflects growing unease over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s more assertive foreign policy.
Along with Pompeo and Payne, Thursday’s meeting was also attended by Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.
A Japanese official, who asked not to be named in line with ministry practice, delivered a briefing with similar wording to Payne’s statement earlier Thursday. However, the official added that the Quad’s framework was not directed at any particular country, and said China was just one of several nations that were mentioned in a broad-ranging discussion.
High-level officials from the four countries are expected to meet next in Bangkok in November on the sidelines of the East Asian Summit, he said.
According to the Times of India on Saturday, Jaishankar confirmed one of the topics up for discussion at the meeting would be Chinese oil prospecting in an exclusive economic zone of Vietnam. India had previously been the main holdout in furthering the group’s agenda, amid concerns in New Delhi that it could worsen ties with Beijing.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in November he sees the Quad as an “important sort of architecture in the region” that can cooperate economically, militarily and strategically.
That puts him at odds with China, which has made clear its opposition to the Quad’s “Indo-Pacific strategy.” In March 2018, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the bloc was a “headline-grabbing idea.”
“The four countries’ official position is that it targets no one,” Wang said. “I hope they mean what they say and their action will match their rhetoric. Nowadays, stoking a new Cold War is out of sync with the times and inciting bloc confrontation will find no market.”
The U.S. and Australia, concerned that China may be looking to establish a military base in the South Pacific that would extend its military reach toward the Americas, have been striving to build an alternative model to Beijing’s state-directed lending for infrastructure projects. Those loans have raised concerns that poorer nations, saddled with debt, could be forced into increased reliance on Beijing.
The Quad members aim to finance infrastructure projects that are properly planned and financially sustainable — although they don’t have nearly as much cash to offer as Xi’s Belt-and-Road Initiative, which Morgan Stanley says may total $1.3 trillion by 2027. – Bloomberg