(CNSNews.com) – Amid a flurry of meetings and summits on President Trump’s Asia itinerary, one event receiving relatively little media attention is the revival of a decade-old but short-lived partnership of four maritime democracies leery of China’s expanding influence across the region.
Senior officials from the United States, Japan, India and Australia met in Manila on Sunday for the first such meeting since the George W. Bush administration, focused on regional issues including North Korea but topped with China-related concerns.
Separate statements from the State Department and its Japanese and Australian counterparts made clear that “rules-based order,” “respect for international law,” and “freedom of navigation” in the region’s waters were high priority. (The Indian statement was a little more nuanced.)
Those issues have particular relevance to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where Beijing has built artificial islands in support of its claims, and the U.S. Navy maintains its right to freedom of navigation patrols despite China’s objections.
“The quadrilateral partners committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles, and to continue discussions to further strengthen the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in the U.S. statement.
The so-called “quadrilateral security dialogue” took off with some promise in 2007, promoted in particular by Shinzo Abe during an earlier stint as Japan’s prime minister. That year – also in Manila – Abe met with his Indian and Australian counterparts and Vice-President Dick Cheney.
China formally protested the move, which it regarded as a ganging up by its chief global rival and regional rivals in an attempt to “contain” it.
Later that year a long-running annual U.S.-Indian joint naval exercise named Malabar was expanded for the first time to include Japanese and Australian warships (as well as Singaporean ones.)
The quadrilateral dialogue did not last, however. An election in Australia ushered in a Labor government that was concerned about upsetting relations with Beijing. Its unilateral withdrawal effectively scuppered the arrangement.
Subsequent Malabar exercises have been bilateral (India-U.S.) or trilateral (India-U.S.-Japan) in scope.
The initiative’s revival now comes at a time when Australia again has a conservative government wary of China, Abe has strengthened his position after a snap election victory last month, and President Trump has said that U.S.-India relations have “never been stronger.”
‘Eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific’
From Trump to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Defense Secretary James Mattis, the administration has been referring increasingly to the “Indo-Pacific” region – rather than the Asia-Pacific or other terminology – in what is being seen as a concerted effort to draw in and emphasize the importance of India.
Tillerson in a speech last month characterized the U.S. and India as “the eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific” and spoke of the importance of engaging “Indo-Pacific democracies.”
“We are already capturing the benefits of our important trilateral engagement between the U.S., India, and Japan,” he said. “As we look ahead, there is room to invite others, including Australia, to build on the shared objectives and initiatives.”
In his APEC speech in Vietnam on Friday Trump built on that, using the “Indo-Pacific” term ten times, referring to a “new chapter for the Indo-Pacific,” and praising India and its prime minister.
“It is a sovereign democracy, as well as – think of this – over one billion people,” Trump said. “It’s the largest democracy in the world. Since India opened its economy, it has achieved astounding growth and a new world of opportunity for its expanding middle class.”
“And Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi has been working to bring that vast country, and all of its people, together as one,” he added. “And he is working at it very, very successfully, indeed.”
A day later, Trump told media representatives that the U.S. “is committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific, where strong, independent nations respect each other’s sovereignty, uphold the rule of law, and advance responsible commerce.”
Trump, Modi, Abe and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull are all in the Philippines Monday and Tuesday for the East Asia Summit and ASEAN meetings. Trump also held a trilateral with Turnbull and Abe on Monday, and is scheduled to hold bilaterals with Turnbull and Modi.