Leaders pose for a picture before a meeting in Tokyo.
Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Tuesday at a meeting with the US and other diplomats that their “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” initiative, a concept to counter China’s growing assertiveness, is more important than ever amid challenges from the coronavirus pandemic.
The foreign ministers from the Indo-Pacific nations known as the Quad group - the US, Japan, India and Australia - were gathering in Tokyo for their first in-person talks since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The international community faces multiple challenges as it tries to resolve the pandemic, and “This is exactly why right now it is time that we should further deepen coordination with as many countries as possible that share our vision,” Suga said.
He took office on Sept.16, vowing to carry on predecessor Shinzo Abe’s hawkish security and diplomatic stance. Abe was a key driving force behind promoting the FOIP, which Suga called “a vision of peace and prosperity of this region” and pledged to pursue the effort.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, and their Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi, were to hold their own session, without Suga, later on Tuesday.
Pompeo earlier met with his three counterparts separately and shared their concerns about China’s increasing influence in the region, while reaffirming the importance of cooperation among those sharing the concerns.
Pompeo in his talks with Payne shared concerns about “China’s malign activity in the region,” while agreeing on the importance for the Quad discussions to “the promotion of peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific,” according to the State Department.
Japan’s Motegi held a working lunch session with Pompeo and expressed hope that Japan and the US will lead the international society to achieve the FOIP.
Pompeo welcomed Suga’s recent description of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific and that “I could not agree him more.” On his way to Tokyo, Pompeo told reporters that the four countries hope to have some “significant achievements” at the meeting, but did not elaborate.
Japanese officials say they will discuss the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the FOIP initiative for greater security and economic cooperation that Japan and the US have been pushing to bring together “like-minded” countries that share concerns about China’s growing assertiveness and influence.
The talks come weeks ahead of the US presidential election and amid tensions between the US and China over the virus, trade, technology, Hong Kong, Taiwan and human rights. Pompeo is attending the Quad meeting, though he canceled subsequent planned visits to South Korea and Mongolia after President Donald Trump was hospitalized with COVID-19. The president was released Monday and returned to the White House.
The talks follow a recent flareup in tensions between China and India over their disputed Himalayan border. Relations between Australia and China have also deteriorated in recent months.
Japan, meanwhile, is concerned about China’s claim to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea. Japan also considers China’s growing military activity to be a security threat. Japan’s annual defense policy paper in July accused China of unilaterally changing the status quo in the South China Sea, where it has built and militarized manmade islands and is assertively pressing its claim to virtually all of the sea’s key fisheries and waterways.
Suga, who had been chief Cabinet secretary under Abe, told Japanese media on Monday that he will pursue diplomacy based on the Japan-US alliance as a cornerstone and “strategically promote the FOIP,” while establishing stable relations with neighbors including China and Russia.
He said he also plans to promote the FOIP during a planned visit to Southeast Asia later this month.
Japan sees the FOIP as crucial to have access to sea lanes all the way to Middle East, a key source of oil for the resource-poor island nation.
Suga has little experience in diplomacy. Balancing between the US, Japan’s main security ally, and China, its top trading partner, will be tough, analysts say.
Japan hopes to regularize the Quad foreign ministers’ talks and broaden their cooperation with other countries. But each Quad member has its own political stance toward China and it would be difficult to agree on concrete steps even though they share perception of China as a common threat, analysts say.
The scale of the deepening crisis was emphasised with the new infection number on the Chinese mainland exceeding that of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002-03.
India has emerged in recent weeks as the new global pandemic hotspot, although cases continue to soar across the globe with reported infections worldwide nearing 27 million and deaths surpassing 880,000.
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