Pompeo seeks to show united front on China despite Covid-19 pandemic

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will meet his counterparts from three other democratic countries in Tokyo.
US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will meet his counterparts from three other democratic countries in Tokyo.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will meet his counterparts from three other democratic countries in Tokyo, in a bid to keep up the pressure on China amid the coronavirus crisis rocking Washington.

The so-called Quad - also including Australia, India and Japan - is slated to hold its second ministerial-level meeting Tuesday (Oct 6), an event expected to help firm up New Delhi's participation in the group.

The in-person gathering demonstrates solidarity at a time when China is feuding with at least three of its members: Australia, US and India.

For the host, newly installed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the meeting signals a willingness to continue some of his predecessor Shinzo Abe's more hawkish security projects.

China has expressed concerns that the "Quadrilateral Initiative," which Abe first helped promote more than a decade ago, is an attempt to form "exclusive cliques" and stoke a "new Cold War."

"What they're doing is sending a message to the Chinese side that engagement is more important than assertiveness," said Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat and visiting professor at Japan's Ritsumeikan University.

"It doesn't mean that this is something to contain China. Nobody can contain China."


The Quad has gained momentum as President Donald Trump pursues a more confrontational approach to Beijing, while India grows increasingly wary of Chinese economic and military influence in South Asia.

The US has since 2017 sought to draw India, which has traditionally protected its non-aligned status, into the fold with a re-branded Indo-Pacific Strategy.

That the meeting is happening at all, as Trump battles a Covid-19 infection in Washington, illustrates its importance to the US.

Pompeo - one of the Trump administration's most vocal critics of the Chinese Communist Party - cancelled subsequent stops in Mongolia and South Korea initially planned for later this week.


Pompeo's trip is intended to "promote the US-Japan Alliance as a force for transparency, accountability, openness, prosperity, and peace in the Indo-Pacific and around the world," according to a statement from the US State Department.

Pompeo arrived in Tokyo on Monday night.

In Tokyo, Pompeo will meet counterparts Marise Payne of Australia, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar of India and Toshimitsu Motegi of Japan.

Australia and China have been locked in an diplomatic tit-for-tat over Canberra's support for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus while Indian and Chinese troops are staring each other down after the deadliest clashes in more than four decades on their disputed Himalayan border.

The meeting will also be the first big diplomatic event for Suga, after coming to the premier's job less than three weeks ago with little foreign policy experience.

Suga must strike a balance between Japan's biggest trading partner, China, and its only military ally, the US.

He also agreed to work closely with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a recent phone call.

"We hope the relevant countries can think more of the regional countries' common interests and contribute to regional peace, stability and development rather than doing the opposite," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.


The four ministers are expected to discuss the pandemic and the regional situation, as well as the importance of cooperation with other countries in realising a "free and open Indo-Pacific."

With no joint statement expected from the meeting, its value could be more symbolic than concrete, although Japan is seeking to make it an annual event.

India is also expected to invite Australia to take part in an annual naval drill, expanding what has been a trilateral event with the US and Japan, Bloomberg News reported in July.

The Quad held its first formal ministerial-level gathering about a year ago in New York, which was seen as a sign of growing unease over Xi's more assertive foreign policy.


Wang Huiyao, an adviser to China's cabinet and founder of the Centre for China and Globalisation, said he doesn't think a strategic alliance aimed at Beijing is useful or productive.

"China is a large trading partner for those nations and has regular collaboration with those nations," Wang said.

The elevation last year of the discussion from official-level talks suggests the previously informal framework was being strengthened to improve intelligence-gathering and present a united front on regional security issues.

Tuesday's meeting comes after the trade ministers of Australia, India and Japan agreed last month to work toward achieving supply-chain resilience in the region, following reports that the three nations were looking to work together to counter the trade dominance of the People's Republic.

"The Quad seeks to establish, promote, and secure Indo-Pacific principles, especially as PRC tactics, aggression, and coercion increase in the region," Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell, of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told reporters Friday.