TOKYO • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Japan yesterday to rally support from Washington's closest allies in Asia, calling for deeper collaboration with Japan, India and Australia as a bulwark against China's growing regional influence.
The East Asia visit, Mr Pompeo's first in more than a year, coincides with worsening tensions with China. Yet the call for a united front against Beijing is a sensitive subject for Washington's allies, which are reliant on China for trade.
In comments before the start of a meeting of the Quad grouping of the four nations' foreign ministers, Mr Pompeo spoke in typically unsparing terms against Beijing's ruling Chinese Communist Party.
That was in contrast to his three counterparts, all of whom avoided calling out China directly.
"As partners in this Quad, it is more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP's exploitation, corruption and coercion," Mr Pompeo said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
"We see it in the South and East China Seas, the Mekong, the Himalayas, the Taiwan Strait."
China has denounced the Quad as a bid to contain its development.
Mr Pompeo's visit was supposed to include trips to Mongolia and South Korea but was cut back to one day after President Donald Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis.
He also reiterated the Trump administration's criticism of China's handling of Covid-19 after it first broke out in the city of Wuhan.
"When we met, now, 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," he said.
"The regime's authoritarian nature led its leaders to lock up and silence the very brave Chinese citizens who were raising the alarm."
The Quad meeting is unlikely to yield a specific action plan, although the gathering itself may serve as a warning to China and play to its fears that the grouping might one day grow into a formalised structure like Nato, experts have said.
The US and China, the world's top two economies, are at loggerheads over a wide range of issues from Beijing's handling of the coronavirus to its imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong and ambitions in the South China Sea.
Most Asian allies have been pleased with Washington's toughness towards their regional rival China but have not so eagerly welcomed Mr Trump and Mr Pompeo's highly charged rhetoric and remain wary of going too far in antagonising China.
Part of the problem for Washington's Asian allies is their dependence on China for trade.
China was the top destination for Australian exports last year, the No. 2 destination for Japanese exports and the No. 3 destination for Indian exports, according to International Monetary Fund direction of statistics compiled by Refinitiv.
But Australia and China have also been locked in a diplomatic tit-for-tat over Canberra's support for an independent probe into the origins of Covid-19 while Indian and Chinese troops are facing off against each other after the deadliest clashes in over four decades on their disputed Himalayan border.
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said after the session that the nations had confirmed they would advance with practical talks on infrastructure, cyber security and other areas.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the Quad promotes an inclusive, open Indo-Pacific, a common refrain among the ministers.
"What they're doing is sending a message to the Chinese side that engagement is more important than assertiveness," said Mr 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 US has said it greatly values the meeting of the Quad grouping of foreign ministers as a platform to strengthen its solidarity against China with regional allies.
"We're hoping to have some significant announcements, significant achievements," Mr Pompeo said before leaving for Tokyo, declining to say what they would be.
As expected, there was no joint statement from the members.