Mike Pompeo’s call for an anti-China military alliance in Tokyo is being treated with extreme caution by the other Quad members

by John Cherian

The much anticipated second ministerial meeting of the Quadrilateral (Quad) grouping comprising Foreign Ministers of the United States, Japan, India and Australia finally happened in Tokyo on October 6. India was supposed to host the meeting in September last year in a 2+2 format, with the Foreign and Defence Ministers of the Quad member countries attending. New Delhi recused itself from hosting the meeting after strong negative vibes emerged from Beijing.

China has not hidden the deep suspicions it harbours about the motivations that led to the establishment of the Quad. Many leading commentators in China and in the wider region believe that the Quad grouping is a precursor to the setting up of an anti-China military alliance. The strong reaction from Beijing had made the Indian government think twice about reactivating the military aspect of the Quad for more than a decade. But after the recent events along the India-China border, New Delhi has chosen to play a more pro-active role in the emerging anti-China military alliance.

U.S. Push For Alliance Against China

Notwithstanding the coronavirus pandemic that continues to rage, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne chose to fly to Tokyo to meet with their Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi. The meeting ended without a joint statement being issued, despite Pompeo’s apparent eagerness to have one. According to reports, his lobbying did not succeed. This outcome can be construed as a setback for the Trump administration, which has been trying to arm-twist its allies and friends to unite under its leadership in the new Cold War against China. Pompeo, Trump’s foremost cheerleader in the increasingly virulent anti-China campaign, has been openly calling for the Quad to be converted into a military alliance.

Pompeo accused China of being complicit in the spread of the pandemic at the Tokyo meeting. He told his fellow Foreign Ministers that collaboration among the Quad countries was absolutely essential at this juncture for the sake of protection from the “CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] exploitation, corruption and coercion”. He declared that China’s recent actions showed its intentions. “We’ve seen it in the South, in the East China Sea, the Mekong, the Himalayas, the Taiwan Straits. These are just a few examples,” he said. Many observers of the region, however, are of the view that it is in fact the Trump administration that has been making overtly aggressive moves in the region, such as sending a naval armada through the disputed South China Sea and East China Sea and also through the Taiwan Straits.

The U.S. has been encouraging India to take a tough stance on the border issue with China. Pompeo recently reiterated that all the blame for the recent events along the disputed India-China border should be attributed to the Chinese Communist Party leadership. In contrast, when the Doklam crisis erupted in 2017, Washington had urged both India and China to find a negotiated settlement..

Pompeo said in Tokyo that Washington viewed the Quad as much more than a talking shop. “Our partnership is not multilateralism for the sake of it. All of us seek a free and open Indo-Pacific and our conversation seeks to achieve that good outcome,” he said. The U.S. wants all the Quad members to participate in the so-called “freedom of navigation operation” that the U.S. Navy has been conducting in and around the South China Sea with increasing frequency. Japan and Australia have been long-standing military allies of the U.S., but they are not keen to rile Beijing beyond a point at this juncture. India is in a similar predicament despite having drawn strategically and militarily closer to the U.S. in the last decade. India’s foreign policy still swears by “strategic autonomy”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi categorically stated at the Shangri La dialogue held in Singapore three years ago that India would not be a part of any military bloc.

Economic Costs

India, Australia and Japan, despite having nationalistic right-wing leaders, were loath to openly entangle themselves in a U.S.-led e military alliance, in the style of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia had withdrawn from the Quad in the last decade after China warned that its active membership would have an adverse impact on bilateral relations. The new right-wing government in Canberra has succumbed to pressure from Washington and has been acting as the Trump administration’s cheerleader in the region. China has reacted by cutting imports of Australian dairy products, wine, minerals and other products. It has also imposed a ban on Australian beef and barley. Senior Australian officials have warned their government against following the Trump administration blindly. The economic costs to Australia are already piling up.

The newly elected Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, has also prioritised his relationship with Beijing. After taking over, he said that he would be working closely with the Chinese President and would continue to hold regular meetings, including summit meetings. President Xi Jinping was supposed to visit Japan last April, but the visit was postponed because of the pandemic. In a telephone conversation in late September, Yoshihide Suga told Xi that bilateral relations between the two countries were “crucial, not only for Japan but for the entire region and the international community”. Suga also talked to Modi. The two leaders stressed the importance of the two countries working together and keeping the Indo-Pacific “free and open”.

The Shinzo Abe Factor

The credit for conceptualising the Quad has been attributed to Suga’s predecessor and mentor, Shinzo Abe, known for his nationalist views and right-wing ideology. It was also Abe who first popularised the “Indo-Pacific” geo-strategic concept. “I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. State of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific,”, the former Japanese Prime Minister said in a 2012 article.

Abe had dreams of once again transforming Japan into a military power to reckon with in the Asia Pacific region. He did partially succeed in tinkering with the country’s pacifist Constitution. In 2015, Abe revised the US-Japan bilateral defence guidelines, allowing defence cooperation between the two countries outside the immediate vicinity of Japanese territory. The Japanese army, still known as the “Self-Defence Force”, has been deployed in support of the U.S. military in hotspots like Afghanistan. Abe had also elevated the ties with India and Australia to the level of “strategic partnerships”.

Political realities in Japan have now changed somewhat after the end of the Abe era. The coronavirus has had an adverse impact on the economy. Japanese companies continue to be dependent on the big China market and its cheap but efficient labour force and economic infrastructure. For that matter, even big American companies are complaining about Trump’s aggressive China policy. Many of them have filed lawsuits in U.S. courts, claiming that the Trump administration’s trade policies have caused them immense losses. The idea of “de-coupling” from China promoted by the Trump administration is a far-fetched one at this point even for the U.S. economy. It is no wonder therefore that Pompeo’s call for an anti-China military alliance in Tokyo is being treated with extreme caution by the other Quad members.

Wooing ASEAN Members

The Americans are also trying to promote a “Quad plus” by trying to rope in New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam. The U.S. would also like the ASEAN ( Association of South East Asian Nations) countries that have maritime disputes with China to join in. But the reluctance of these nations to join a grouping like the Quad has been apparent for some time. The governments of the Philippines and Malaysia have already stated that they would resolve their territorial disputes with China through bilateral talks. It is also quite inconceivable that the Communist Party of Vietnam will ever have close military and strategic relations with the U.S., against which it fought and won a bloody resistance war that lasted for 20 years.

New Zealand, which was initially indifferent to the Quad concept and even showed preference for the old Asia Pacific formulation, seems to have bent under pressure from the U.S. The country is a member of the exclusive “Five Eyes” group of nations that share worldwide intelligence. The U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada are the other members. The Trump administration wants to expand “the Five Eyes” to include its other allies such as Japan and Germany and eventually countries like India and Singapore in the Asia Pacific region.

Just before Abe demitted office, Japan expressed an interest in becoming the sixth member of the “Five Eyes”. A U.S. Congressional Select Committee on Intelligence, in a report to the House of Representatives in late 2019, recommended that India, Japan and South Korea be added to the “Five Eyes” in order to maintain peace and the rule of law in the “Indo Pacific” region. It is obvious that China will be the main focus for the intelligence gathering.

India Drawing Closer To U.S.

The Modi government’s ideological predilections have driven India even closer to the U.S. The two countries signed the “joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region” in 2015. The following year, the two countries signed the “foundational” military interoperability agreement known as the Logistics Exchanges Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), giving U.S. forces access to Indian military bases for the first time, putting the country on a par with countries such as the Philippines and Singapore. These countries were long-time military allies of the U.S.

After S. Jaishankar became the External Affairs Minister in 2019, the Indian government once again embraced the idea of the Quad with enthusiasm. The enthusiasm level has only gone up after the recent events along the China border, though India continues to insist that the Quad is not an anti-China grouping. Jaishankar, according to many U.S. “think tank” commentators, is a keen supporter of the “Quad” and played an important role in convincing Modi about its efficacy in confronting a more assertive China.

It is being speculated that one of the reasons for China’s recent actions along the border with India was India’s support for the Trump administration’s military moves, especially in the South China Sea. It is not only China that is objecting to U.S.-led groupings like the Quad. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, while making Moscow’s displeasure on the Quad apparent, has said that “a sustainable security architecture in the Asia Pacific region cannot be achieved through a bloc arrangement”. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in a statement issued after the recent Tokyo meeting, said that Beijing remains opposed to the creation of “closed and exclusive cliques”. The official said that such groupings did not have a place in the 21st century when the interests of all countries in the world were intertwined and at a time when humanity was facing a pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is trying its best to get India to sign up to an anti-China military alliance before the elections in the U.S. in November. Trump is now running on an anti-China platform but is finding it difficult to get any major country to join him in openly targeting Beijing. Pompeo is expected to visit New Delhi again in the end of October for the 2+2 ministerial meeting of U.S. and Indian Foreign and Defence Ministers. Pompeo said in Washington that India “absolutely needs the United States to be their ally in this fight [against China]”. The U.S. National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, advised the Indian government against negotiating with Beijing. He said that China was attempting to redraw the border with India by force and that the time had come to accept that dialogue and agreements would not persuade China to change.