The Trump administration’s push for U.S. allies in Asia to take collective new steps to counter China is expected to dominate discussions as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with his Japanese, Indian and Australian counterparts in Tokyo on Tuesday.
Mr. Pompeo’s trip to the region this week has been shortened because of President Trump’s COVID-19 hospitalization. Stops planned in South Korea and Mongolia are no longer on the schedule.
Tuesday’s gathering of top diplomats from the “Quad” countries, however, remained a priority. The administration recently floated the idea of developing the group into an “Asian NATO” in the face of China’s growing economic and military might.
But those hopes face a test this week to see whether the Australians, Indians or Japanese, all of whom have frictions of their own with leaders in Beijing, are ready to talk openly about a more formal defense grouping.
Australia has appeared the most aligned with the Trump administration. Japan and India remain guarded out of fear that such an alliance would trigger punitive economic backlash from Beijing. The fact that Japan agreed to host the ministerial meeting, just days after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga took office, is seen as a sign that Tokyo may be warming to the idea.
The Quad was initiated in 2007 by Mr. Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe. Japanese officials say they want to focus the talks this week on the COVID-19 pandemic as well as issues pertaining to freedom in the wider Indo-Pacific.
U.S. and Japanese officials back an initiative known as Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which aims to expand security and economic cooperation throughout the region by bringing together countries that are “like-minded” — essentially pro-democracy and pro-market.
Before departing from Washington, Mr. Pompeo told reporters that he hoped Tuesday’s meetings would provide some unspecified “significant announcements” and “significant achievements.”
Although skeptical of multilateral institutions, the Trump administration has embraced the Quad as part of its 2017 Indo-Pacific strategy, particularly as China steps up its aggressive behavior in the region.
Unease over China
Past efforts for an East Asian security alliance, such as the post-World War II Southeast Asia Treaty Organization to guard against Cold War-era communism, lost traction, but that was before China’s emergence as a rising superpower. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said China is “fundamentally shifting the global balance of power” in ways that should motivate NATO to “become more global.”
The Trump administration is keen to seize upon regional unease over China’s construction of military bases on artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea, as well as Beijing’s growing use of “wolf warrior” diplomacy and its crackdown on domestic dissent in places such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun recently suggested that the Quad could be the beginning of a NATO-style alliance in Asia.
“It’s something that I think in the second term of the Trump administration or, were the president not to win, the first term of the next president, it could be something that would be very much worthwhile to be explored,” Mr. Biegun said at a U.S.-Indian strategic dialogue on Aug. 31.
Mr. Biegun also said an Asian NATO would be about more than countering China and could broadly coordinate militaries and economies of the region’s smaller nations around a rules-based value system.
“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. The strongest institutions in Asia oftentimes are not inclusive enough,” he said. “There is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalize a structure like this.”
The catch is that the Quad nations, while stepping up joint military exercises in recent years, have struggled over long-term steps. Some members hesitate to create a more formal alliance or be drawn into a U.S.-led effort to confront and contain Beijing.
The Japan Times reported that Tokyo, which has clashed with Beijing over sovereignty of islands in the East China Sea, “will have to walk a fine line on the subject of China” on Tuesday, given Japan’s economic relationship with China.
India also has traditionally resisted formal NATO-style security alliances, though New Delhi’s thinking may be altered by bloody border clashes with Chinese forces high in the Himalayas.
Daniel S. Markey, a former State Department official now at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said Chinese-Indian tensions could create an opening for Washington.
The border dispute, coupled with the recent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, “may be shifting attitudes in India” in a manner that “makes the American job of convincing Indians that China is a threat easier.”
The Indian Embassy in Washington declined to comment for this article, although an Indo-Pacific source familiar with India’s position recently told The Times that recent events have made India a bit more open to the Quad idea.
“To talk about an Asian NATO is definitely jumping the gun,” the source said, “because it puts out a narrative of a military grouping, which Delhi is against.”
Wooing South Korea
Analysts often point to South Korea in discussions about what other nations might be asked to join an expanded Quad.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has toed a delicate line. He suggested in late September that Seoul would likely resist a U.S.-led alliance aimed at containing China.
“We don’t think anything that automatically shuts out, and is exclusive of, the interests of others is a good idea,” Ms. Kang said, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. “If that’s a structured alliance, we will certainly think very hard whether it serves our security interests,” she said.
Ms. Kang also said South Korea has never been invited to be part of the Quad and that Seoul is “ready to have discussion with whoever has an approach that is inclusive, open and in accordance with international norms.”
The English-language Korea Times reported Monday that South Korean leaders were privately relieved that Mr. Pompeo scrubbed a visit with the U.S. elections less than a month away and Seoul reluctant to offend either Washington or Beijing until the situation is clearer.
Mr. Pompeo’s itinerary has attracted considerable attention. The secretary of state refused to answer questions from the traveling press about a rumored surprise stop in Taiwan. The Trump administration has been siding with Taiwan more openly in recent months as relations with China deteriorate.
Meanwhile, the proceedings in Tokyo will be a test for the new Japanese prime minister. Mr. Suga will be making his diplomatic debut as Japan’s leader when he attends part of the Quad meeting.
Analysts say Mr. Suga, who is slated to hold separate talks with Mr. Pompeo, faces a tough task in balancing Tokyo’s relations between the U.S., which is Japan’s main security ally, and China, its top trading partner.
“The challenges of Japan-U.S. relations are not in themselves, but in where Japan stands when U.S.-China disputes intensify,” said Yasushi Watanabe, an expert on U.S. diplomacy at Japan’s Keio University.
“It would be best for Japan to take a pragmatic approach to China while maintaining the Japan-U.S. alliance as a cornerstone,” Mr. Watanabe told The Associated Press. “And it is indispensable for Japan to strengthen cooperation with the EU, Britain, Australia and ASEAN.”
Some think talk of an Asian NATO is distinctly premature.
“A shared threat perception of China does not mean shared views on what to do and if it’s possible to build the Quad into something along the lines of NATO,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan.