Beijing cautioned on Monday against an alliance between the United States and three of its regional allies after officials from the four countries met for the first time in Manila, raising prospects for a bloc to counter China’s strategic expansion.
In response to Sunday’s meeting of officials from the US, India, Australia and Japan, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said regional cooperation should neither be politicised nor exclusionary.
The weekend meeting was the first for the participants since the concept of a four-way alliance was raised by Japan a decade ago.
Observers said the gathering again highlighted deep suspicion and unease among China’s neighbours over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitions for regional dominance. It also underscored growing regional competition between Beijing and Washington, they said.
The meeting comes as the US appears to be shifting strategic focus, with US President Donald Trump using the term “Indo-Pacific” to define the region during his first trip to Asia. The term underlines Washington’s diplomatic and security commitment to a broader region than the Asia-Pacific and highlights the importance of India in the face of a stronger, assertive China.
The idea of the quadrilateral security initiative of “like-minded” democracies was first raised by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 but, wary of their relations with China, India and Australia hesitated to take part initially.
However, the two nations changed their minds after Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative” appeared to challenge the US-led world order and China became more assertive in the South China Sea. The Sino-Indian border stand-off earlier this year also added impetus for New Delhi.
In their meeting on the eve of the leaders’ summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the four countries agreed to cooperate towards a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”.
The meeting, known as the “Quad”, did not produce a joint statement and US officials have denied the move was aimed at containing China. But Beijing warned last week that any manoeuvres towards a security grouping should not target or damage a “third party’s interest”.
In his meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of Asean talks on Monday, Trump also discussed regional security and pledged to boost bilateral trade and security ties.
According to The Hindu newspaper, Modi told Trump that India-US ties were becoming broader and deeper. “You too can feel that India-US ties can work together beyond the interest of India, for the future of Asia and for the welfare of the humanity in the world,” the Indian prime minister was quoted as saying.
In a separate meeting with Asean leaders, Trump called for closer ties with Southeast Asia and urged Asean leaders not to become “satellites” to anyone, a veiled caution against China’s growing clout in the region.
“We want our partners in the region to be strong, independent, and prosperous, in control of their own destinies, and satellites to no one,” Trump said.
Analysts said the Quad meeting was not a coincidence given that Trump appeared keen to promote his Indo-Pacific concept as the cornerstone of his Asia strategy and worked hard to strengthen ties with its allies and partners, including India and Vietnam, to counterbalance China.
Jinan University Southeast Asian affairs specialist Zhang Mingliang, also said the Quad was largely an expected response from the four countries to Beijing’s growing military and economic influence.
Du Jifeng, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, agreed, adding that the four countries shared ideological values and did not have competing strategic interests on key regional security issues, including the South China Sea and North Korea.
“Although they did not mention China by name in a bid to avoid further antagonising Beijing, it is an open secret that all of them are deeply worried about China’s rise and have been busy working from behind the scenes on the initiative for quite a long time,” he said.
Du said Beijing should stay alert to such a security alliance, which had the potential to include other smaller countries such as Vietnam, and reshape the regional geopolitical landscape in the long run. But he also cautioned against overreacting to the Quad, which was still in its infancy.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, also said India, Australia and Japan each had their reasons for wanting the Quad to mean something, especially considering the declining power of the US under Trump.
“For all the silliness of Trump, China’s neighbours remain wary of China’s increasing might and intentions,” especially as Xi tried to reassert China’s “historical” place or dominance in the region, he said.
“China’s neighbours will follow the ‘Chinese approach’ of ‘watching China’s deeds in addition to hearing its words’. Unless Beijing will show in concrete steps why its neighbours have nothing to fear, they will not rest at ease,” Tsang said.
However, a Philippine diplomat who declined to be named, was sceptical about the influence the Quad could have on Asean.
“None of the countries is in the South China Sea … [If] you are not there, it’s not your territory.”
Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press
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