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The U.S. State Department’s No. 2 diplomat said Monday that Washington was aiming to “formalize” growing strategic ties with India, Japan and Australia in a forum known as “the Quad” — a move experts say is implicitly designed to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region.

“It is a reality that the Indo-Pacific region is actually lacking in strong multilateral structures. They don’t have anything of the fortitude of NATO, or the European Union,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said in an online seminar on the sidelines of the annual U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum.

“There is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalize a structure like this,” he added.

Known officially as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the grouping is an informal strategic forum of the four democracies that holds semiregular summits and joint military drills, and discusses regional economic and development assistance. It is often credited as the brainchild of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose August 2007 speech titled “Confluence of the Two Seas” provided the foundations for the grouping.

While it has seen ups and downs, the latest iteration of the Quad was re-established in November 2017, with an emphasis on the importance of maintaining the liberal rules-based international order — a veiled jab at China — according to observers.

But Biegun said that while the U.S. strategy in the region was “to push back against China in virtually every domain,” Beijing could not be the only aspect driving the Quad.

“I’d just be very careful to not define it solely as an initiative to contain or to defend against China,” he said. “I don’t think that’s enough.”

Beijing, which has criticized the Quad as a means of containing China, has been the target of growing bipartisan fury in the United States over a range of issues, including the novel coronavirus, trade, technology, supply chains and maritime assertiveness. Many of these concerns are shared by the other three nations in the Quad.

“For the first time in the Quad’s history, the stars are aligning for a harder line on China, and the implications going forward could be significant,” Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with the Rand Corp. think tank, wrote in an analysis in late July.

“Most importantly, Quad resolve would also no longer be symbolic, but concrete, and this should enhance the deterrence value of the group toward China,” he wrote.

Biegun also explicitly noted that “the Quad isn’t exclusive” to the four countries currently involved.

“I think there’s plenty of reason to bring other countries into this discussion as well,” he said, noting recent talks on how to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic that included senior officials from the four countries and South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand.

“Seven of us on a weekly basis at my level, so just below the ministerial level, and each of those governments met weekly, and it was incredibly productive discussion among very, very cooperative partners,” Biegun said, calling the meeting “a natural grouping.”

Still, the senior U.S. official noted it was important to “make sure everybody’s moving at the same speed.”

Although both the United States and Japan are strong proponents of bolstering the grouping, Australia, and particularly India, have had a history of misgivings about taking things too far — especially in the security realm — out of apparent fears of reprisal from China.

“I would be careful not to be too ambitious,” Biegun said. “I’ve heard loose talk about an Indo-Pacific NATO and so on. But remember, even NATO started with relatively modest expectations and a number of countries chose neutrality over NATO membership in post-World War II Europe.”

Biegun also touched on a ministerial meeting planned in fall with Quad officials announced Friday by U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien.

“The purpose here can be to create a critical mass around the shared values and interests of those parties in a manner that attracts more countries in the Indo-Pacific, and even from around the world, to be working in a common cause or even ultimately to align in a more structured manner with them,” Biegun said.

Tetsuo Kotani, a professor at Meikai University, however, said he believed the Quad would continue to be a loose framework, with regular high-level dialogues and possible naval exercises, due to the varying interests of the members.

“I think what we can basically expect from the Quad is ‘think quadrilaterally, act trilaterally,’” Kotani said, describing such a scenario as “more realistic.”

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