Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) bump fists as they meet at the prime minister's office in Tokyo, Japan on October 6, ahead of the four Indo-Pacific nations' foreign ministers meeting. Photo: AFP Forum/Eugene Hoshiko / Pool/Anadolu Agency

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga underscored today his commitment to the Quadrilateral (Quad) alliance of like-minded powers in the Indo-Pacific region, a sign his new administration plans to tackle head-on China’s rising strategic assertiveness.

Suga signaled his foreign policy direction in hosting this week’s high-profile meeting among Quad ministers, including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who pushed ahead with the crucial visit even after President Donald Trump was admitted to hospital for Covid-19 treatment.

“Prime Minister Suga is a powerful force for good,” Pompeo said following today’s (October 6) meeting with his counterparts from India, Australia and Japan for talks that aimed to institutionalize the loose alliance. 

“The United States has every reason to believe he will strengthen our enduring alliance in his new role,” he added, emphasizing the centrality of Japan to any enduring regional strategy vis-a-vis China.

Pompeo went on to set the tone by calling on allies to counter China’s “exploitation, corruption and coercion” while claiming “the pandemic that came from Wuhan” was “made infinitely worse by the Chinese Communist Party’s cover-up.”

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue seeks to forge a common strategy and united front to constrain China’s ambitions and nominally preserve a “free and open” order in the region. Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne underscored her nation’s desire for a region “governed by rules, not power.”

(L-R) India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pose for photographs before a Quad Indo-Pacific meeting, Tokyo, October 6, 2020. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Datiche/Pool

Japan, the world’s third-largest economy with Asia’s most modern armed forces, serves as the fulcrum of the geopolitical grouping. Unlike Washington, Canberra and New Delhi, Tokyo is not as at direct loggerheads with Beijing, though the two sides have bubbling maritime disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Whether Suga’s hosting of today’s Quad meeting changed that is not altogether clear. In contrast to Pompeo’s confrontational rhetoric, Suga said the pandemic shows “exactly why right now is the time that we must further deepen coordination with as many countries as possible that share our vision.”

A protégé and longtime close aide of Japan’s long-serving prime minister Shinzo Abe, Suga has been largely an enigma to outsiders. Preferring to operate in the shadows of the corridors of power, he obstinately avoided the public glare during his years-long tenure next to Abe.

In contrast, the former Japanese leader was widely seen as a bold and charismatic figure, a globetrotter who regularly visited key allies and strategic regions throughout his almost decade-long tenure in office.

During his first stint in power in the mid-2000s, Abe highlighted the “Confluence of the Two Seas” in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, whereby he actively facilitated closer strategic ties with the US and Australia on one hand, and the rising power of fellow democracy of India on the other.

The former Japanese leader is largely credited as the co-architect of the Trump administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) doctrine, which calls for deepened strategic and naval cooperation among regional democracies against China.

Though expected to focus on domestic economic reforms and consolidation of power, Japan’s new leader has now clearly signaled a certain foreign policy continuity with his predecessor by hosting the Quad. (A similar high-profile Quad meeting was held in New York last year.)

For starters, Suga has heavily relied on Abe’s foreign policy hands in his new administration. This includes the former prime minster’s brother and newly-appointed Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, a China hawk known for his pro-Taiwan sympathies.

Since his ascent to power in mid-September, Suga has launched a diplomatic blitzkrieg, holding phone conversations with world leaders, including a 30-minute phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping last Friday.

Japan’s Yoshihide Suga attends a press conference at the prime minister’s office on August 24, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Japanese leader has also held phone calls with key allies, namely US President Donald Trump, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

With its heft and growing frictions with China, India remains a major strategic priority for Japan.

During his conversations with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in late-September, the two leaders agreed to build on recent strategic initiatives to create “Japan-India special strategic and global partnership”, according to Japan’s Foreign Ministry.

“[Both leaders] emphasized that the economic architecture of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region must be premised on resilient supply chains, and in this context, welcomed cooperation between India, Japan and other like-minded countries,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement.

The Suga-Modi talk coincided with a virtual meeting on September 25 among senior officials from US, Australia, India and Japan to coordinate a common strategy to preserve a “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.”

The four democratic powers are also zeroing in on areas where China has recently gained strategic ground, namely its naval presence in adjacent waters and growing economic influence over debt-stressed nations in South and Southeast Asia.

“They explored ways to work together in the Mekong sub-region, in the South China Sea, and across the Indo-Pacific to support international law, pluralism, regional stability, and post-pandemic recovery efforts,” said an earlier statement issued by the US State Department.

Cooperation among Quad allies has now gone well beyond rhetoric. Just weeks earlier, India and Japan signed a vital Acquisitions and Cross Servicing Agreement, which paves the way for long-term defense cooperation and deepened naval interoperability between the two countries.

In late-September, the two sides concluded the Japan-India Maritime Exercise (JIMEX), featuring Japan’s Indo-Pacific deployment (IPD) units led by the JS Kaga and JS IKazuchi warships, as well as the Indian Navy’s INS Deepak, INS Chennai, and INS Tarkash warships, and MiG-29K and P-81 aircraft.

A trilateral exercise between the US Navy, the Royal Australian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Philippine Sea on July 21, 2020. Photo: US Navy

The naval exercises are part of expanding military drills and defense cooperation among like-minded Indo-Pacific powers, with the US, India, Japan, Australia and major European allies conducting various forms of Freedom of Navigation Operations in contested areas including the South China Sea.

Since the Quad is neither a formal alliance nor a full-fledged multilateral organization, their foreign ministers were not expected to issue a joint communique after the meeting, according to reports.

But Pompeo, along with his Japanese hosts, are expected to push to make the gathering an annual event and in future to implement tangible mechanisms to counter China’s influence and moves in the region.

In response, China has warned against “exclusive cliques” which aim to constrain its rise.

“We hope relevant countries can proceed from the common interests of countries in the region, and do more things that are conducive to regional peace, stability and development, not the other way around,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said ahead of the Quad meeting in Tokyo.