The foreign ministers from the Indo-Pacific nations known as the Quad group — the United States, Japan, India and Australia — met in Tokyo on Tuesday in what was their first in-person talks since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The meeting took place in the backdrop of China’s aggressive military behaviour in the Indo-Pacific, South China Sea and along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh.
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne affirmed strengthening of a free, open and rules-based international order.
Chinese aggressiveness was a matter of concern, a senior State Department official told reporters travelling with Pompeo.
“That is the concern. I mean, if you look at the conflict in the Himalayas between China and India, something that has been in the past handled according to unspoken or unwritten rules to prevent these things from getting out of control, and then you look at what happened here recently, where you’ve got actually people beating each other to death,” the official said.
“If you look at the single thing that’s driving all this, it’s a sudden turn toward gross aggression by the Chinese government in its entire periphery. I mean, you take it all the way around the Indo-Pacific and its western borders; you’re seeing things that you haven’t seen before, and these are responding to that,” said the official.
India and China are locked in a nearly five-month-long border standoff in eastern Ladakh
China is engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas.
Beijing has also made substantial progress in militarising its man-made islands in the past few years.
Beijing claims sovereignty over all of the South China Sea.
But Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan have counterclaims.
In the East China Sea, China has territorial disputes with Japan.
The South China Sea and the East China Sea are stated to be rich in minerals, oil and other natural resources.
They are also vital to global trade.
Although the US lays no claims to the disputed waters, it has challenged China’s growing territorial claims in the South China Sea by deploying warships and fighter jets to assert freedom of navigation and overflight patrols in the strategically vital region.
Another US official said that the Chinese aggression certainly draws a big part of this.
“But it’s also about the different models that we stand for, democratic countries and an authoritarian model, and which ones will be sort of more successful in the long run. We obviously believe ours is the one to follow to ensure that countries can best deal with the problems that they face and the common challenges that we have,” the official said.
In Beijing there seems to be a race to get to certain goals, the official said.
“They talk about their 2021 centenary goal, their 2035 goal, and their 2049 goal. They’re accelerating. There’s also been this unfortunately bashing of nationalism inside the People’s Republic of China by the government, which then corners it to do things that it otherwise would have been able to back down from,” the official said.
A third official said that the problem also has to be framed correctly.
“This isn’t about a US-China dispute. This is about the free world versus Chinese authoritarianism. The secretary (Pompeo) speaks frequently about that, and that’s the way he framed his discussions, and there was a lot of agreement around that table,” he said.
As a growing power, they need to understand that there are things that great powers do. They participate in arms talks when they have a nuclear capability with delivery systems.
“These are all things that we’ve talked about they talk about, again, the US versus China,” the official said.
“It’s everybody is saying if you’re going to have these capabilities and if you’re going to have this economic power – WTO, you should use it in ways that are acceptable to everybody and not exclusively for your benefit as part of a global system,” the second official said.
The Quad ministerial lasted for about three hours in Tokyo, during which the leaders discussed topics of mutual interest and concern.
“There is no avoiding the fact that it’s China and its actions in the region that make the Quad actually matter and function this time around,” the official said.
“When you think of the Quad, you think of security. But as the secretary said yesterday, security comes in many forms: economic security, protecting intellectual property rights. I mean, all things that we do, to include the traditional security, all figure into this,” the first official said.