For all of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s fiery rhetoric targeting China during Tuesday’s meeting in Tokyo of four of the most powerful democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific region, few concrete takeaways emerged from the talks.
But the symbolism of just showing up may have been part, if not the main point, of the dialogue.
At the second-ever ministerial talks involving officials from the “Quad” countries — Japan, India, Australia and the United States — all four agreed to hold another round of talks in the future. There was even some talk of regularizing the forum.
Still, China remained the elephant in the room.
Although Pompeo said “it is more critical now than ever” that Quad partners “collaborate to protect our people and partners from the (Chinese Communist Party’s) exploitation, corruption and coercion,” this stood in sharp contrast to his three counterparts, all of whom avoided calling out China directly.
Beijing views the Quad as an attempt to contain its rise, and overt talk of further bolstering it for such a purpose remains a sensitive issue for the three countries due to their strong economic ties with Beijing.
In response to the Quad meeting, the Chinese Embassy in Japan released a statement Wednesday saying that Beijing has long maintained that multilateral cooperation should be open, tolerant and transparent, rather than conducted in “closed and exclusive small circles” and should not be targeted at third parties.
“We hope that relevant countries will do more to enhance mutual understanding and trust among countries in the region, and promote regional peace, stability and development, and not the opposite,” it said.
Mentioned or not, experts say Beijing was surely at the front of the Quad members’ minds.
“Although none of the four countries specifically verbalized ‘China’ … I think it is still quite clear that China is at the very top of their agenda,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with the Rand Corp. think tank.
Quad nations likely made a conscious decision not to explicitly mention China because that could feed into the narrative Beijing has presented to the Indo-Pacific and the world that the Quad is a military alliance designed to rein in China, he said.
But China, with its recent and longtime actions, may have already forced the hands of each member. From its border disputes with India to its maritime assertiveness with Japan, to its diplomatic and economic tussles with Australia and its superpower rivalry with the U.S., Quad participants have reasons to to be wary of China — and to do something about it.
“The policies of each Quad participant are now such that it would not be surprising if, at a future Quad meeting, they finally verbalized ‘China’ as the top reason for their meetings,” Grossman said.
But when it comes to upgrading the Quad meeting to a security alliance, the four nations are not on the same page, to say the least.
Although Pompeo said in an interview Tuesday with the Nikkei newspaper that his goal was to institutionalize the Quad as a security framework in what he described as “a fabric that can counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us,” neither the subject of institutionalization nor a security framework — likened to a “mini-NATO” by China — was raised during Tuesday’s four-nation discussions, according to a Japanese Foreign Ministry official.
Asked about Pompeo’s remarks, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato on Wednesday deflected the question, saying that the government is not sure what he meant.
Some experts have poured cold water on the possibility of a Quad security architecture, noting the varied interests of the nations involved and the already plentiful number of organizations in the region, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the East Asia Summit.
“The notion of a mini-NATO is unlikely in the near future,” said Sebastian Maslow, an expert on Japanese politics at Sendai Shirayuri Women’s University. “We have seen plenty of regional institutions over the course of the last three decades.”
He said that the problem in the region was never a lack of institutions, but rather their governance capabilities, since members were often embroiled in rivalries and had competing interests.
Maslow pointed to the ongoing row over wartime history and trade issues between Japan and South Korea, two neighbors and U.S. allies that, in theory, should be members of a security alliance triangle.
This, he said “has illustrated how difficult it has become to initiate and maintain a working security community.”
The four Quad countries held their first ministerial meeting in September last year in New York and agreed to convene again next year in their bid to regularize the occasion. Kato clarified in the Wednesday afternoon briefing that the dialogue will not necessarily be a once-a-year event and that the four will continue discussions at the working level in the meantime.
During his visit, Pompeo also echoed earlier remarks by his Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi, suggesting that other nations could be added to the grouping, though he qualified that as coming at an undefined “appropriate time.”
Motegi on Tuesday also alluded to that possibility, noting that European nations such as France and Germany, which are both keenly interested in the Indo-Pacific and have cast a wary eye toward China, share values such as democracy, the rule of law and freedom of navigation.
“It’s important to cooperate with as many nations as possible that share these basic values and common rules,” Motegi said.
So-called Quad Plus meetings focusing on the coronavirus pandemic, which included South Korea, Vietnam, New Zealand and others, have already been held. But a more formal expansion could also be in the cards.
“I don’t think it’s entirely out of the realm of possibility that new countries would be added, especially fellow democracies in Europe which have already expressed deep concerns surrounding Chinese behavior,” Grossman said, citing a recent move by the U.K., France and Germany on upholding international law and norms of behavior in the South China Sea.
But formal participation by Southeast Asian nations appears a bridge too far for the moment as they hedge their bets against aligning too closely with an increasingly erratic U.S. or a China that is growing in assertiveness but is crucial to their economic well-being.
“At most, I could see a European country or two joining the future, but it’s hard to see any other country doing so,” Grossman said.
Much of the future of the Quad hinges on what happens less than a month away, on Nov. 3, when the U.S. either re-elects President Donald Trump or chooses former Vice President Joe Biden as its new leader.
Indeed, one of the prime reasons why Tuesday’s Quad meeting produced few concrete takeaways was because of the uncertainty surrounding the U.S.’s foreign policy direction after the election.
As for Japan and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the Quad meeting further cemented the new leader’s vow to maintain continuity in his approach to foreign policy as he builds on predecessor Shinzo Abe’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision, which would secure Japan’s role and push back against China’s own ambitions as a rising power.
“From Japan’s point of view, the Quad is a useful instrument to further its own geostrategic approach,” said Maslow.
But Suga, too, will remain handcuffed until after the U.S. election.
“Bottom-line: No concrete measures can be expected from Suga until Japan is certain which direction U.S. foreign policy will shift post-election,” Maslow said. “And even if Trump is re-elected, the modus operandi for Japan will remain to balance its security and economic interests vis-a-vis China and the U.S.”
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