The second meeting of foreign ministers of the Indo-Pacific Quad comprising India, Japan, Australia and the United States has rattled China, which appears to be groping for a suitable response. The October 6 Tokyo security conclave, where the four foreign ministers, braving the Covid-19 pandemic, chose to meet in person, and not online, evoked a prickly response from the Chinese embassy in Japan.
In its statement, the Chinese embassy warned the foursome not to form “exclusive cliques” that threaten the interests of third parties. It also took aim specifically at US secretary of the state Mike Pompeo, implying that the Quad was divided on the question of China. “Pompeo has repeatedly fabricated lies about China and maliciously created political confrontation. We once again urge the US to abandon its Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice, stop unprovoked accusations and attacks against China and treat relations with China in a constructive manner,” the embassy said.
The statement predictably ignored the fact that just because the other three countries of the Quad, did not name China, it did not mean that they did not share Washington’s concern about Beijing posing a real threat to a rule-based Indo-Pacific region. Unsurprisingly, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne asserted that Quad countries were committed to a region that was “governed by rules, not power,” a veiled but clear message to China.
India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar also sharply focused on the importance of “upholding the rules-based international order”. He spotlighted that the Quad grouping had grown in importance, trailing, what appeared to be Pompeo’s pitch for mutating the Indo-Pacific Quad into a more formal security grouping modelled on NATO.
In his meeting with Pompeo, Japanese pitched China’s territorial disputes with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, as well as Beijing’s militarisation of conflict prone South China Sea.
In tune with the Chinese embassy statement, Global Times, the propaganda bullhorn of the Communist Party of China (CPC), sought to sell the illusion that the US stood isolated in its anti-China tirade during the conference in the Japanese capital. “The US has been barking aloud before and during the Quad meeting. But will it bite with expected ‘unity’ from the Quad? The answer is no. At least, the result of this Quad meeting is evidence of the US’ relatively declining leadership.”
Reading from a similar script, the website Sina.com.cn chorused, citing the Associated Press, that “?Pompeo was the only one who explicitly criticized China in the opening speech of the Quad”.
But China watchers in the mainland and outside were not so sanguine or vituperative in their response. Pang Zhongying, an international relations expert with Ocean University of China in Shandong province, pointed to the growing potency of the Quad, following the Covid-19 pandemic. “Since the (coronavirus) pandemic, in the past nine months or so, the Quad has evolved from being a loose grouping based on a vague concept to now emerging as a political and military bloc that sees China as their common challenge,” Pang was quoted as saying in the South China Morning Post.
The scholar pointed out that China’s growing assertion in the region maybe reinforcing the Indo-Pacific security bonds. “The formalisation of Quad, to a certain extent, is closely linked to China’s security policy and its assertive posturing in recent years.” Pang also cited that outside the region, countries such as Germany were showing greater interest in Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Germany last month became the second European country after France to formally sign up for an Indo-Pacific strategy, with China at its heart.
The daily also quoted Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, urging China to dial down its rhetoric for its own good. “If China is able to handle regional security issues with a less assertive tone, there is likely to be less incentive for countries in the region to band together and strengthen the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy.”
Despite their bravado, the Chinese are bound to worried by the rapid institutionalisation of the Quad to perform common security missions. Days before Tokyo conference, a US submarine – hunting P8 Poseidon, for the first time refuelled from India’s Andaman Sea hub of Port Blair – an event whose legal underpinnings can be traced to Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) (LEMOA), which became operational in 2018. Earlier, the US had refuelled the Indian Navy’s warship, Talwar, in the northern Arabia Sea, invoking the same arrangement.
After signing LEMOA, India has inked similar agreements with the remaining Quad members, Australia and Japan, laying the foundations for joint operations in the Indo-Pacific region.
Later this month India and the US are set to sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geo-spatial cooperation. The last of four military communication foundational agreements, BECA is an important precursor to India acquiring armed drones such as the MQ-9B from the US as the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) uses spatial data for pinpointed strikes on enemy targets, the Hindustan Times reported. The agreement can be a game-changer, in view of the China’s heavy military build-up in Ladakh.