Quite the most glaring feature of the meeting between foreign ministers of the United States, India, Japan and Australia ~ or the Quad as it is called ~ was the sharp contrast in emphasis in the positions taken by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the one hand and his three counterparts on the other.
While Mr Pompeo emphasised the need to “collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP’s exploitation, corruption and coercion,” the others including Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar were measured in their approach, preferring to pin their hopes on a free, inclusive and open Indo-Pacific, without directly targeting China. Mr Pompeo was acerbic as usual, saying “When we met last year, the landscape was very different. We couldn’t have imagined a pandemic that came from Wuhan. That crisis was made infinitely worse by the Chinese Communist Party’s cover-up. The regime’s authoritarian nature led its leaders to lock up and silence the very brave Chinese citizens who were raising the alarm.”
The problem for America’s allies is that while they realise the need to contain an expansionist and increasingly aggressive Beijing, they are handicapped by the extent to which their economies are intertwined with that of China. For this reason, they are loath to resort to the sort of rhetoric that seems to come easily to Mr Pompeo.
Mr Jaishankar, for instance, would only go so far as to say that India remains committed to “upholding a rules-based international order” underpinned by “transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes.” While the objective of advancing security and economic interests binds Quad countries, it is the tone of their rhetoric that separates them.
While the Quad was set up initially to keep critical sea routes in the Indo-Pacific free of any influence and for the four member countries to create a shield that could thwart Chinese assertiveness, its scope has widened because of events that followed the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic. Tensions between China and Japan have increased over the past few months over what Tokyo calls “relentlessly continued attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by coercion in the sea area around the Senkaku islands”.
Australia was targeted with additional tariffs on barley and a suspension of beef exports, after it called for an international inquiry into the outbreak of the virus in China. A few weeks ago, matters came to a head with the detention – without charge ~ of an Australian journalist. India, of course, has spent the entire summer fighting off Chinese incursions in Ladakh and is now preparing to dig its troops in for a crippling winter. While these imperatives are enough to bring the four countries together, their approaches will be far more nuanced than the US might like.