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Eyeing China, Quad nations make fresh pitch for free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific

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NEW DELHI: The four leading democracies whose grouping is commonly referred to as Quadrilateral (Quad) at the meeting of their Foreign Ministers in Tokyo on Tuesday affirmed to create free and open Indo-Pacific region and create resilient supply chains sending a strong message to China whose aggressive policies have rattled nations across continents.

At their second meeting since 2019, held in the backdrop of ongoing LAC tensions, the Ministers called for a coordinated response to the challenges including financial problems emanating from the pandemic; need to share best practices to combat Covid-19; increasing the resilience of supply chains; and enhancing access to affordable vaccines, medicines and medical equipment, ET has learnt.

“The Foreign Ministers exchanged views about regional issues of mutual interest, and issues related to connectivity; humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; maritime safety and security; health security, and counter terrorism. They reaffirmed their collective vision of maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. They reiterated their firm support to ASEAN centrality and highlighted their readiness to work towards realizing a common vision for the Indo-Pacific. Appreciating the value of these consultations, they agreed to hold them regularly,” according to a MEA statement.

In his bold remarks to the press ahead of the meet US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo called on three other Indo-Pacific democracies to unite against coercion from China, in a bid to keep pressure on Beijing. “As partners in this Quad, it is more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP’s exploitation, corruption and coercion. We’ve seen it in the south, in the East China Sea, the Mekong, the Himalayas, the Taiwan Straits”

But the Japanese FM Toshimitsu Motegi like his Indian counterpart avoided any direct mention of China. His Australian counterpart Marise Payne too avoided any direct mention of China but referred to territorial disputes and UNCLOS and suggested that Quad could provide strategic balance in the region.

India, without naming China or referring to the provocation by the People’s Liberation Army along the border, asserted on Tuesday that it remained committed to a rules-based world order, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, and a peaceful resolution of disputes.

Foreign minister S Jaishankar said, “As vibrant and pluralistic democracies with shared values, our nations have collectively affirmed the importance of maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. We remain committed to upholding the rules-based international order, underpinned by the rule of law, transparency, freedom of navigation in the international seas, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes.”

“Our objective remains advancing the security and the economic interests of all countries having legitimate and vital interests in the region,” the minister said.

Jaishankar, in the presence of the four Ministers, said the events of this year had demonstrated how “imperative it is for like-minded countries to coordinate responses to the various challenges that the pandemic has brought to the fore”.

Jaishankar said the fact that the four foreign ministers were meeting in person, despite the global pandemic, was “testimony to the importance that these consultations have gained, particularly in recent times”. He added: “Our world is significantly different today than what it was when we last met in New York in September 2019.”

In a veiled reference to an initiative for supply chain launched by India, Japan and Australia that is expected to reduce the dependence on China, Jaishankar stated, “As we collectively navigate these uncharted waters, we seek to emerge from the pandemic more resilient than ever before.”

The Minister also referred to growing acceptability of India’s Indo-Pacific vision. “Indo-Pacific concept has gained increasingly wider acceptance. The Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative that we tabled at the East Asia Summit last year is a development with considerable promise in that context.”

While there were speculations that the Quad foreign ministers’ meet would be held in Delhi and US officials had announced it, Tokyo had desired to host this meet to showcase its commitment to a free & secure Indo-Pacific in the post Abe period, ET had reported last week.

However, there is a view that India was cautious to hold this meet at this stage amid negotiations with China over LAC stalemate. India also is not in favour of transforming Quad into a military bloc. In the recent past, India had held separate naval exercises with the US, Japan and Australia in the Indian Ocean Region, even as speculations continue over Australia’s inclusion into the 2020 Malabar Naval exercise.

Ahead of the Quad meet, the US sounded cautious and said the “Quad membership is driven by shared interests, not binding obligations”. “The Quad seeks to establish, promote, and secure Indo-Pacific principles, especially as PRC tactics, aggression, and coercion increase in the region,” assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs David R Stilwell told reporters during a conference call on Friday.

Stilwell had also ruled out any joint statement at the end of the Tokyo meet and claimed that the Quad was not formed to exclude nations.

The US, Japan, Australia and India have been stepping up cooperation to ensure rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region, including the maintenance of the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight and peaceful settlement of disputes, in a veiled counter to China’s growing clout in the region.

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