Pompeo seeks unity against China’s assertiveness, but don’t expect an Asian NATO

Those trends have forced democracies in the Asia-Pacific region closer, and Pompeo told Japan’s Nikkei newspaper he wanted to reinforce collaboration among a group of four regional powers known as the Quad — Australia, Japan, India and the United States — to build a security “fabric” to confront the challenge posed by China’s Communist Party.”

Pompeo complained of China’s bullying, corruption and coercion, and said the choice for the world was “between freedom and tyranny.”

“This is not a rivalry between the United States and China,” he told Japan’s public broadcaster NHK. “This is for the soul of the world. This is about whether this will be a world that operates … on a rules-based international order system, or one that’s dominated by a coercive totalitarian regime like the one in China.”

Instead, Pompeo and his Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi, are pushing a looser concept known as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, an idea advanced by former Japanese leader Shinzo Abe in 2016, and later adopted by the Trump administration.

The idea centers on free markets and free trade, freedom of navigation and the rule of law, offering an implicit defense against Chinese coercion without explicitly excluding Beijing.

“I hope Japan and the U.S. will lead international society to achieve the Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” Motegi said as he met Pompeo, describing the U.S.-Japan alliance as “the cornerstone of peace and stability in the region” and promising continuity under new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Pompeo described Japan’s new leader as “a powerful force for good.” He also met individually with his counterparts Marise Payne of Australia and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar of India ahead of joint talks and a dinner.

Beijing, conscious of encirclement, has reacted with concern and anger as the Quad democracies coordinate more closely. Last month, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin complained about “exclusive cliques” that targeted “third parties” and undermined regional peace and stability.

Yet Beijing’s actions are fueling the pushback. Its efforts to seize land along its disputed border with India this year prompted deadly clashes and provoked India to retaliate by blocking scores of Chinese Internet apps.

Relations between China and Australia have nose-dived after Canberra called for an inquiry into the novel coronavirus outbreak, while Japan has grown increasingly concerned about Chinese efforts to ratchet up territorial claims to the disputed Senkaku islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyu. China’s clampdown on political freedoms in Hong Kong and stepped-up military activities in the Taiwan Strait have heightened alarm about its intentions.

Pompeo, meanwhile, has been trying to build a global coalition to counter what he calls the growing threat posed by China.

Together, that has given the Quad fresh impetus. Before leaving for Tokyo, Pompeo said he was hoping to have “some significant announcements, significant achievements” from this meeting.

Writing in China’s Global Times tabloid, Zhang Tengjun, an assistant research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, warned a military version of the Quad was about to take shape.

“The four Quad countries claim their military and economic measures are aimed at maintaining balances of power and rule-based regional order,” he wrote. “But in fact, the Quad grouping is an ideological camp similar to the one during the Cold War. It seeks to contain China.”

Still, Asian nations including Japan and India are wary of explicitly taking sides against China and prefer dialogue, partly because they have extensive economic ties with their large neighbor and partly because they sometimes wonder how dependable a friend they have in Washington.

“They dream of another NATO, but half of the Quad is ambivalent,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan.

But Narushige Michishita, vice president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, said the Quad was becoming “more serious and concrete.”

“All four Quad members feel threatened by China in one way or another: political influence activities, cyberattacks, intellectual property theft, territorial disputes and, most importantly, China’s increasingly clear intention to challenge and reshape existing international systems and values,” he said.

While each of the Quad states valued relationships with China, they also realized they could engage more effectively if they “speak in one voice and pressure China to move in the more cooperative path,” he added.

Asked recently about Pompeo’s plans to forge a coalition against Beijing, Wang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the secretary of state was “talking nonsense.”

“He won’t see that day,” Wang told a news conference on Sept. 29. “And his successors won't see that day either, because that day will never, ever come.”

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