• REUTERS

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Asia next week demonstrates Washington’s strong commitment to allies and partners in the region, the top American diplomat for East Asia, David Stilwell, said Friday.

Pompeo said earlier on Friday he would go ahead with the trip to Japan, South Korea and Mongolia, even after President Donald Trump tested positive for the coronavirus.

In a briefing call on the trip for reporters, Stilwell said the United States saw the decision by new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to host Pompeo as a reaffirmation of an ever-strengthening partnership.

Stilwell said a ministerial meeting of the “Quad” grouping of the United States, Japan, Australia and India next Tuesday would probably not produce a joint statement, adding that the group has shared values, but different perspectives.

Stilwell called the U.S.-Japan relationship “the cornerstone of peace, security and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific” region.

He said the Quad, which China has denounced as an attempt to contain its development, was focused on furthering “a shared vision of a free open and inclusive Indo-Pacific … especially as (China’s) tactics of aggression and coercion, increase in the region.”

Recent discussions among the Quad had focused on building cooperation on issues including maritime security and on critical technology, infrastructure and counterterrorism, Stilwell said.

However, when asked whether the four-way grouping would issue a joint statement, Stilwell said: “I think you’ll see public availability related to this, as far as a joint statement, probably not.”

He said there were a lot of areas for discussion, but these could be “freeform as well.”

“This is the wonderful thing about the Quad … we have shared values, but different perspectives, and from those come great ideas and elegant solutions.”

China-U.S. relations have sunk to the lowest point in decades in the run-up to the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.

The world’s two biggest economies have clashed over issues ranging from trade, technological and security rivalry to human rights and the response to the coronavirus, which first surfaced in China late last year.

Washington’s allies and partners in Asia share U.S. concerns about China’s increasingly assertive behavior and extensive territorial claims, but analysts say they have been concerned about the tone of some of Pompeo and Trump’s rhetoric against Beijing.

The high-level meeting will be closely watched by China, which warned on Tuesday against “exclusive cliques” that target third-parties.

The meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday is the first standalone meeting of the Quad ministers, after an inaugural meeting a year ago in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations.

“This will be another important step forward for this grouping of Indo-Pacific democracies,” Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said in a statement confirming her travel.

“We will discuss strengthening cooperation to support regional responses to the health and economic dimensions of COVID-19, including on vaccines, supply chains and quality infrastructure investment.”

China is expected to be discussed in the meeting, which is not a formal alliance but a network to share perspectives on stability in the region.

Payne said the meeting comes “at an important time in the Indo-Pacific, when our shared interests are under unprecedented pressure, including as the region responds to COVID-19.”

Critical minerals will be discussed, as Australia seeks to create a market for its rare earths, which are a key component in global technology manufacturing, but currently dominated by supply from China.

The first quadrilateral dialogue of officials was held in 2007, followed by a joint naval exercise, but was abandoned the next year when Australia withdrew amid Chinese complaints the Quad was an attempt to contain China’s rise.

The group was revived in 2017 with official-level talks.

India, previously seen as cautious about the revival of the Quad, has this year been involved in border clashes with China. At least 20 Indian solders were killed while China suffered an unspecified number of casualties in a bloody hand-to-hand clash at the border in June.

Australia’s diplomatic relations with China worsened this year after Canberra led calls for an international inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic, and Beijing imposed trade sanctions on Australian beef and barley.

Payne said India, Japan and the United States were “vital Indo-Pacific partners” for Australia.

Payne, Pompeo and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar are also expected to meet individually with Suga.

Indian media has speculated that India will invite Australia to participate in the annual Malabar naval exercises with Japan and the United States, but no invitation has yet been made.

Australia last joined Malabar in 2007.

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