When Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, travels to Tokyo next week to “deepen ties with like-minded partners” Japan, India and the United States, she is sure to be swapping notes with her counterparts on how each country is handling tensions with China.
Experts say the high-level meeting of the “Quad” won’t do anything to ease Australia’s current diplomatic turbulence with Beijing, but they see it as an important signalling exercise: foreign ministers from four of the Indo-Pacific region’s maritime democracies coordinating their policies and standing together in the face of common challenges.
The agenda for the meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday will include how to support the region’s health and economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, improve the resilience of international supply chains, and push back against state-backed disinformation. Australia wants the discussion to take into account particularly sensitive sectors such as critical minerals and technology.
It’s the second time over the past few months that Payne has travelled overseas for a major diplomatic engagement, the earlier one being the Ausmin talks in Washington in late July. Like last time, Payne and her accompanying officials will isolate for two weeks upon their return to Australia.
Dr Lavina Lee, a senior lecturer in international relations at Macquarie University, said the holding of the meeting just over a year since the first foreign ministers-level meeting of the Quad on the sidelines of the United Nations general assembly “suggests that none of the four countries is backing away from closer collaboration on shared interests despite Chinese protests about ‘exclusive cliques’”.
“The Chinese are clearly worried about what the Quad could lead to in the future,” she said.
“The Australian government has, I think rightly, decided that the best approach is to defend our national interests, and to work with allies and partners in doing so, and that China will get used to it. The worst thing to do would be to back-track, which would imply that Australia can be coerced and that its resolve is weakening.”
Last month, China’s vice foreign minister, Luo Zhaohui, described the Quad as “an anti-China frontline” or “mini-Nato” which reflected America’s “cold war mentality”.
In a statement announcing her travel, Payne did not mention China directly but said the meeting came at an important time because “our shared interests are under unprecedented pressure, including as the region responds to Covid-19”.
“We are committed to working together, and with all countries in the region, to chart a road to recovery in a way that helps all countries reinforce their sovereignty and resilience.”
Payne characterised the visit as “an opportunity to advance Australia’s interests, deepen ties with like-minded partners, and reaffirm our shared commitment to promoting a stable, inclusive and prosperous region as we work towards Covid-19 recovery”.
After Tuesday’s Quad meeting, Payne will also have one-on-one meetings with the Japanese foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. The three visiting ministers are also due to meet with Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga. On the way back to Australia, Payne will make a stop in Singapore to meet with her counterpart.
She said the group would discuss ways to strengthen cooperation aimed at supporting regional responses to the health and economic dimensions of the pandemic. This would include talks on vaccines, quality infrastructure investment and supply chains.
The comments allude to developing alternatives to Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative – which is focused on financing infrastructure projects around the globe – and to build up supply chains that are not so heavily dependent on China.
It comes amid separate discussions by the trade ministers of Australia, India and Japan to launch an initiative to strengthen supply chains – but those negotiations are still at a preliminary stage.
Peter Jennings from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said he expected the issue of how to deal with China would be “the number one talking point” at the Quad meeting.
“It’s about getting more confident that the democracies are aligning their policies – not necessarily making them identical,” he said.
“China has only itself to thank, frankly. Regardless of how else it’s presented, China is the thing that is bringing these four democracies together more closely and quickly.”
Prof Rory Medcalf, head of the Australian National University’s national security college, said while China was one of the big reasons for the four countries to meet, it shouldn’t be seen purely through an anti-China lens.
He said the Quad also provided an avenue for Australia, India and Japan to act together in seeking to engage and moderate the US in the region.
“It’s also three of America’s friends talking to America in unison to try to encourage greater engagement and stability – and that’s actually in China’s interest.”
Medcalf, who has written an essay about the Quad for the forthcoming edition of the Australian Foreign Affairs journal, said the the move reflected a trend toward “minilateralism” – self-selecting friends and partners to act in areas of common interest and capability.
He said the Tokyo meeting was part of building a long-term partnership. “We’re at the early stages of a 10-year journey,” Medcalf said.
The Quad grouping, formally known as the Security Quadrilateral Dialogue, has its origins in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, when the navies of the US, Japan, India and Australia worked together to deliver humanitarian relief.
Officials held their first Quad meeting on the sidelines of an Asean event in 2007 – the same year Shinzo Abe, Japan’s then prime minister, called for a “broader Asia” partnership based on intensifying cooperation between Tokyo and New Delhi. But it lost steam for several reasons and the then-Rudd government in Australia declared it would not pursue another such meeting.
The Quad has gained momentum again over the past few years, however, with regular talks among officials and now increasing signs of potentially annual meetings among foreign ministers.
Lee, from Macquarie University, said while the meeting “certainly doesn’t help tensions between Australia and China”, she did not see it “in and of itself as a reason for further economic coercion against Australia” following recent trade actions against barley, red meat and wine.
Dr John Lee, senior fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre and a former adviser to Julie Bishop, said the fact the ministers were meeting in person during the pandemic was highly significant.
“This is a reflection of the seriousness with which the Quad is treated which involves the four most forward-leaning countries when it comes to countering certain Chinese activities in the region,” he said.
“It is also an indication that recent Chinese actions against India, such as the deadly skirmish earlier in June, have caused India to place unprecedented emphasis on the Quad.”
Asked whether Australia should be worried about China’s reaction given the ongoing bilateral tensions, he said: “China has already taken a coercive turn against Australia over other issues. Pursuing the Quad is one response to that behaviour by China, as it has been for India. There is also safety in numbers.”