Top diplomats from four major democracies in the Indo-Pacific region will converge in Tokyo on Tuesday for highly anticipated talks that could shape how they confront the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s growing assertiveness — with Japan playing a key role.
The meeting of officials from so-called Quad countries — Japan, India, Australia and the United States — comes as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic and as the four nations grapple with how best to confront a revanchist Beijing over its moves in the region.
Both issues will feature prominently in the discussions, according to officials and experts, but questions remain over whether the four countries can overcome their differences and lay the foundation for more concrete cooperation.
At the very least, the talks are expected to send a firm if symbolic message to Beijing.
Known officially as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quad is an informal strategic forum of the four nations that holds semiregular summits and joint military drills, and discusses regional economic and development assistance.
The meeting will be the four countries’ second round of talks since the Quad forum was rebooted last September. Aside from the coronavirus and Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision, the foreign ministers are expected to discuss infrastructure, maritime national security, counterterrorism, cybersecurity and humanitarian relief efforts, according to officials at the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
At the meeting, Tokyo will have to walk a fine line on the subject of China, balancing its desire to confront Beijing over a range of security and rights issues while also seeing that its intertwined economic interests with its large neighbor are maintained.
The talks, as well as the top diplomats’ scheduled bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, will also be a crucial first diplomatic test for the new leader and his fledgling administration. Suga has faced questions over his foreign policy skills as diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific becomes increasingly important to stability in the region.
But Suga, who observers say largely owes his ascent to the nation’s top post to the backroom dealings of China-friendly Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, will also have to work to assuage concerns within his government over going too far in confronting Beijing.
Tokyo is currently embroiled in a row with Beijing over the continued presence of Chinese government vessels near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which China also claims and calls the Diaoyu. Japan also has spoken out against China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, its mass detention of ethnic Uighurs in its far northwest Xinjiang region and its assertiveness in the contested South China Sea.
These issues have prompted some China hawks in the LDP to push for a more confrontational stance against Beijing, including for the cancellation of a long-planned but currently postponed state visit to Japan by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Speaking at a news conference Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato called the Quad meeting “an important opportunity” for the countries to work toward a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
Asked about maintaining relations both with the U.S. and China, Kato reiterated his earlier remarks underscoring the importance of international cooperation as well as the need for stable Sino-U.S. ties.
“Our country will continue to build strong trust with the U.S., our ally, while keeping close contacts with China as we advance our cooperation on various fronts,” Kato said. “That’s what we’ve been doing and what we’ll continue to do.”
Suga himself, via his recent telephone diplomacy, has signaled implicitly that Tokyo is willing to work closely with its Quad partners. The prime minister spoke with the leaders of the U.S., Australia and India all before ringing up Xi late last month. Notably, Suga said his conversation with Xi did not include mention of the postponed state visit.
According to J. Berkshire Miller, a senior fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Tokyo remains deeply concerned about China’s behavior in the region and has been pushing for a stronger posture from Washington for several years.
“The stronger stance from the U.S. on China under the Trump administration therefore has been welcomed to a large extent, although there remains anxiety about how far the U.S. will push to decouple from Beijing and force the hands of its allies to do the same,” Miller said. “Suga will need to carefully thread the needle on this to balance Japan’s core reliance on the U.S. alliance alongside its pragmatic need to have a balanced relationship with China.”
Although the U.S. says the Quad was not formed to exclude nations, much of its focus has shifted to bolstering what Washington says is “a shared vision of a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region … especially as (Chinese) tactics, aggression, and coercion increase in the region.”
Beijing, for its part, has lambasted the Quad as a thinly veiled attempt to contain China, with Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui last month deriding the grouping as “an anti-China front line” and a “mini NATO.”
Overall, while Quad members have denied the claims of containment, most have been relatively happy with the United States’ tough approach to Beijing, which all view as a regional rival. Nevertheless, there have been reservations about the increasingly heated rhetoric coming from the White House. These reservations are likely to grow as U.S. President Donald Trump, now hospitalized with COVID-19, trails his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, in the race for the presidency and looks to pin more of the blame for the pandemic’s devastating domestic impact on Beijing.
“Less than a month before a pivotal election in which a now hospitalized president is expected to lose, no foreign leader will want to do anything more than symbolic arm-waving over rhetorical blandishments,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia-Pacific security expert at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington.
Ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Tokyo, his deputy, Assistant Secretary of State for Asia David Stilwell, admitted this was likely to be the case, conceding during a Friday news briefing that the Quad meeting was unlikely to produce a joint statement or action plan despite the four democracies’ concern over Chinese moves in the region.
Japanese officials echoed this sentiment on Monday, saying the gathering was unlikely to yield any kind of joint announcement highlighting its progress.
Pompeo is slated to pay a courtesy visit to Suga on Tuesday afternoon, while the top diplomats from the four countries are scheduled to hold talks later in the evening.
Ultimately, said Cronin, the trip will be seen by Quad countries through the prism of the 2020 White House campaign.
“No foreign leader will want to get dragged into America’s domestic politics,” said Cronin. “Everyone knows the Trump campaign is driving the messaging of the U.S. government at this point, and the main foreign policy message is aimed at highlighting Beijing’s threats to the existing order and democratic values.”
Whatever the outcome of the meeting — and the larger issue of who the next American president will be — experts say that despite some divergence of opinion on tactics regarding dealing with China, all sides agree that Beijing’s behavior in the region is creating a strategic challenge that requires multinational cooperation.
Japanese officials have said that the four countries are hoping the dialogue will be held at regular intervals and will be seeking to hold another meeting next year.
“The U.S. election is unlikely to change that as the other Quad countries realize that the U.S.-China strategic competition is structural and will not fundamentally be altered with a new administration,” Miller said.