US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on key Asian allies to unite against China's "exploitation, corruption and coercion" in the region, as he held talks Tuesday in Tokyo.
Pompeo was speaking at the start of discussions with his Japanese, Indian and Australian counterparts -- the so-called Quad grouping, seeking to present a united front against an increasingly assertive Beijing.
But it was the top US diplomat who took the hardest line on China, referring to the "pandemic that came from Wuhan", which he said was "made infinitely worse by the Chinese Communist Party's cover-up".
He warned it was "more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP's exploitation, corruption and coercion", citing China's actions in the Himalayas, Taiwan Strait and elsewhere.
This rhetoric was not fully echoed by Washington's partners in the grouping, although Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne pointedly spoke of the desire for a region "governed by rules, not power".
The talks come with Washington, Sydney and New Delhi all at loggerheads with Beijing.
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar noted the fact that the meeting was happening at all, given the coronavirus pandemic, was "testimony to the importance" of the alliance.
But Japan, under the leadership of new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, is seeking to balance the need to support its allies with its desire to continue gradually improving ties with China.
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi notably did not mention China in his remarks, and the government has said the talks are not directed at any one country.
"Lately, the present international order has been challenged in various fields and the new coronavirus is accelerating the trend," Motegi said at the start of the meeting.
"Our four countries share the objective of strengthening a free and open, rule-based international order."
- Other stops scrapped -
Pompeo's visit, which included bilateral talks with his counterparts as well as a meeting with Suga, took place despite the coronavirus crisis in Washington, where President Donald Trump and several staff and advisors have tested positive.
Although planned stops in South Korea and Mongolia were scrapped, Pompeo said it was important to go ahead with the four-way talks in Tokyo, promising "significant announcements".
However, no joint statement or press conference is expected after the meeting.
Pompeo is a vociferous critic of China on issues from security to human rights to the pandemic, which Trump's administration has sought to blame squarely on Beijing ahead of the US election next month.
He is the first senior American official to visit Japan since Suga took office last month, and he said he was confident Tokyo and Washington were on the same page.
Earlier Tuesday, Suga said the spread of the coronavirus had shown "exactly why right now is the time that we must further deepen coordination with as many countries as possible that share our vision".
But he too avoided any specific mention of Beijing, which has made clear its disdain for the grouping, and last week urged countries to avoid "closed and exclusive 'cliques'".
"We hope the relevant countries can proceed from the common interests of countries in the region, and do more things that are conducive to regional peace, stability and development, not the other way around," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
The Quad grouping was heavily promoted by Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe as a way for the region's major democracies to step up cooperation in the face of military and other threats posed by China.
The first Quad meeting took place in New York last year, and there are moves to make the gathering an annual event.