TOKYO: Foreign ministers from four Indo-Pacific nations known as the Quad group are gathering in Tokyo on Tuesday (Oct 6) for talks that Japan hopes will increase their involvement in a regional initiative called Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) aimed at countering China's growing assertiveness.
The meeting – the first in-person talks among the foreign ministers since the coronavirus pandemic broke out – brings together US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi.
Japanese officials say they will discuss the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the FOIP initiative for greater security and economic cooperation, which Japan and the US have been pushing to bring together "like-minded" countries that share concerns about China's growing assertiveness and influence.
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.
The talks come weeks ahead of the US presidential election and amid escalating 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 cancelled subsequent planned visits to South Korea and Mongolia after President Donald Trump was hospitalised with the coronavirus.
The talks follow a recent flare-up 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 defence policy paper in July accused China of unilaterally changing the status quo in the South China Sea, where it has built and militarised man-made islands and is assertively pressing its claim to virtually all of the sea's key fisheries and waterways.
New Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will make his in-person diplomatic debut when he attends part of the Quad meeting. He will also hold separate talks with Pompeo on deepening the Japan-US alliance and the FOIP.
"The world is possibly becoming even more unpredictable and uncontrollable due to heightening selfish nationalism and growing tension between the US and China," Suga said in an interview with Japanese media on Monday.
He said he will pursue diplomacy that is based on the Japan-US alliance as a cornerstone and "strategically promote the FOIP", while establishing stable relations with neighbours including China and Russia.
He said he also plans to promote the FOIP during a planned visit to Southeast Asia later this month.
Suga replaced Shinzo Abe, who resigned due to poor health, on Sep 16, pledging to carry on Abe's hawkish diplomacy and security policies. Abe has been a driving force behind FOIP. Japan sees it as crucial to have access to sea lanes all the way to the Middle East, a key source of oil for the resource-poor island nation.
Suga, a former chief Cabinet secretary, 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.
"The challenges of Japan-US relations are not in themselves, but in where Japan stands when US-China disputes intensify," said Yasushi Watanabe, an expert on US diplomacy at Japan's Keio University.
"It would be best for Japan to take a pragmatic approach to China while maintaining the Japan-US alliance as a cornerstone," he said. "And it is indispensable for Japan to strengthen cooperation with the EU, Britain, Australia and ASEAN."
Japan hopes to regularise the Quad foreign ministers' talks and broaden their cooperation with other countries.
That would be a major challenge for the Quad, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan. "A shared threat perception of China does not mean shared views on what to do and if it's possible to build the Quad into something along the lines of NATO," he said.
The US and Australia would favour the idea, but Japan and India are ambivalent and so is ASEAN, he said.
"Transforming the Quad into a collective security organisation targeting China forces governments to choose sides. Beijing has generated an arc of anxiety in Asia but there is a preference for dialogue and negotiations, not sabre rattling."