TOKYO — For Japan, it was the first time its new prime minister hosted international emissaries. For the United States, it was the first trip to Asia by its top diplomat in more than a year.
So when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greeted each other in front of a bank of American and Japanese flags on Tuesday in Tokyo, they exchanged what was surely the longest fist bump in their nations’ seven-decade alliance, a nearly 15-second joining of knuckles.
The physicality of the gesture highlighted the importance that both sides put on meeting in person to demonstrate the solidity of their bond in the face of rising challenges from China, even amid a widening coronavirus outbreak inside the White House and Japan’s cautious approach to opening its borders to foreign travelers.
The Tokyo gathering, which included the foreign ministers of Australia and India — the other two members of a strategic partnership known as the Quad — was scheduled before President Trump contracted the coronavirus. The fact that it went ahead, even as many summits have moved online during the pandemic, signaled that parts of the Trump administration value multilateral relationships despite his “America First” agenda.
“Given all the insanity that is going on in Washington, D.C., right now, this is a really positive development,” said Gordon Flake, chief executive of the Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia.
“The fact that the U.S. is showing up despite all the other problems in the world and domestic problems in the White House right now shows the level of importance that even the U.S. places on these three key partners,” he added. “Without Japan, India and Australia, there really is no regional response to the security challenges of the coming decades.”
There is little question about from where those challenges are coming.
With Chinese military aggression rising in the region and Beijing cracking down on Hong Kong, the four countries are looking for ways to cooperate in military, economic and technological realms — and deliver a message of solidarity to a watchful Beijing.
As Mr. Trump has pulled the United States back from the global stage, China has had a “remarkably fertile environment for growing Chinese influence in the region and undermining the U.S. influence, which is the Chinese objective,” Mr. Flake said. Instead, its deepening hawkishness and authoritarianism have “served to alarm the region as a whole.”
Yet only the United States, which has taken an especially hard line against China — pushing relations to their lowest point in decades — seemed willing to name the threat explicitly in Tokyo.
In Mr. Pompeo’s remarks on Tuesday evening, he said that the Quad’s members needed to protect their people from China’s “exploitation, corruption and coercion,” and he blamed China for a cover-up of the initial coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. A statement about Mr. Pompeo’s meeting with the Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, described their discussions of “China’s malign activity in the region.”
Ms. Payne’s comments on Facebook about the meeting with Mr. Pompeo did not call out China by name China, but her implication was clear.
“Whether it is individual human rights, market-based economies, countering disinformation or building greater resilience into our supply chains,” she wrote, “our common values and interests mean we share a vision for a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”
Diplomats and analysts know well that variations on the catch phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific” — which was invoked in remarks by Ms. Payne, Japan’s foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, and India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar — are all directed at China.
American officials have followed the bellicose example set by Mr. Trump, who has bashed China to improve his re-election prospects. The Quad’s other members, mindful of their geographic proximity and economic reliance on China, were more circumspect in their criticisms.
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A day before the foreign ministers arrived in Tokyo, Katsunobu Kato, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said that “stable relationships with both the U.S. and China, the two largest economic powers, are extremely important in the international community.”
Japan, mindful of the economic might of its largest trading partner and its own limited military options, needs to pursue a delicate balancing act, experts said.
“When we talk about the Quad, some people express their concern about what China might think about it,” said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “If we talk about China in this setting, China would regard this as a containment conspiracy, so this sentiment still remains.”
The Quad, Mr. Michishita said, is “about China, but we say it’s not about China. Everybody knows it. China knows it. We don’t have to say it too much.”
Cooperation between the four countries, formally known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, began in 2004 to coordinate disaster relief and humanitarian assistance in the wake of the devastating tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands across Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and South Africa.
But as the grouping evolved into a diplomatic and security partnership that Beijing perceived as a direct effort to contain its rise, Australia and India grew wary of a backlash from China, and the group collapsed.
“It was too early,” said Lavina Lee, a senior lecturer in international relations at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. The early version of the Quad “was pre-empting and creating a security dilemma where none existed.”
“But now we’re in a very different phase of history,” Dr. Lee said. “Since 2012, China has become much more clearly assertive and aggressive in terms of its territorial aggression and ambitions of where it sees itself in the region, and under Covid conditions that is not letting up at all.”
In June, China and India engaged in their worst border clash in 40 years, and relations between Australia and China have deteriorated since Australia attributed a surge of cyberattacks to Beijing and launched an investigation into allegations of a Chinese government plot to manipulate the country’s politics.
Japan has also grown more vigilant as China has repeatedly sent ships to patrol waters around the Senkakus, islands administered by Japan but contested by China.
“If you had Venn diagrams and put together all of their definitions, I think you would see a fairly large overlap in how each of those four countries think about security in the region — that there should be freedom of navigation and open trade, and that countries should not be coerced into accepting outcomes that are against their interests,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
While no joint statement was on the agenda for the four nations, they were expected to discuss the possible development of an investment fund to help developing Asian countries with infrastructure projects, a counter to China’s Belt and Road initiative; cooperation on supply chains to reduce reliance on China; the development of 5G networks that do not depend on the Chinese technology giant Huawei; and an invitation to Australia to join naval war exercises with the other three countries.
The allies “have enough heft and are willing to do these things together,” said Tanvi Madan, the director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington, “and take the heat that might come from Beijing for working with each other.”
Makiko Inoue and Hikari Hida contributed research.