A WEEK after Japan publicly proposed the “quadrilateral dialogue” with India, US and Australia, Canberra has indicated its willingness to be a part of the political-security dialogue between the four democracies — with an eye to counter China’s aggressive maritime expansion under its Belt and Road Initiative.
Australia is the last of the four to comment publicly on the “quadrilateral dialogue”, which is likely to take place on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Philippines on November 13-14. The Australian stand was articulated by its Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in an interview to Fairfax media on Wednesday.
Responding to a specific question on whether Australia supports the new regional forum with US, Japan and India, Bishop said, “This has been an issue that the four nations have canvassed in the past. Indeed, there was a quadrilateral forum set up during John Howard’s time as Prime Minister and that was abandoned by the incoming Rudd government. There has been discussion that we are like-minded democracies, we are all committed to regional stability and security, and already Australia has regular meetings through the Foreign Ministers and Secretaries of State — with Japan, India and US. So it’s natural that we should continue to have such discussions, but there is nothing formal. There has been no decision on that.”
Bishop’s comments have been conveyed to South Block by the Indian High Commission in Canberra.
South Block sources told The Indian Express that the Indian government has got the “necessary positive feedback” from the partners over the last week. “There is some level of enthusiasm to the dialogue… all four sides will have to flesh out the details and arrange a meeting of the key interlocutors. We may start at official level and take it up the hierarchy… ministerial-level, could even be at leaders’ level (President/ Prime Ministers). Let’s see how this plays out,” said a source.
The Indian position was articulated within a day of Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono’s proposal, with the Ministry of External Affairs’ official spokesperson, Raveesh Kumar, saying that India is “open to working with like-minded countries on issues that advance our interests and promote our viewpoint. We are not rigid in this regard… As far as we are concerned, we have an open mind to cooperate with countries with convergence, but obviously on an agenda which is relevant to us.”
India also cited several trilaterals, ranging from Russia-India-China trilateral to India-US-Afghanistan meetings, to show its “broad acceptability”.
The idea was first mooted by Kono last week, when he told The Nikkei Business Daily that Japan would propose a top-level dialogue with the US, India and Australia. Kono said he had exchanged thoughts on the four-party dialogue with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in August, on the sidelines of a foreign ministers’ meeting in Manila. In fact, Kono, Tillerson and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September, where some of these issues were discussed.
The idea is for leaders of the four countries to promote free trade and defence cooperation across a stretch of ocean from the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean and all the way to Africa. Kono also said he offered the foreign ministers of the UK and France collaborative roles in the partnership.
Abe will officially propose the dialogue partnership to Trump during their bilateral meeting on November 6. “We are in an era when Japan has to exert itself diplomatically by drawing a big strategic picture,” Kono had told The Nikkei.
The US too had reacted positively to the Japanese proposal. “The quadrilateral that the Japanese foreign minister discussed would be building on what has been a very productive trilateral that we have with India and Japan, and if you look at the largest military exercise that we do, Malabar, Japan is a part of that exercise. As we explore ways to deepen and try to inculcate some of the values — freedom of navigation, maritime security, humanitarian assistance, disaster response, transparency — obviously, Australia would be a natural partner in that effort as well. We’re looking at a working-level quadrilateral meeting in the near term, but again, I think the idea is how do we bring together countries that share these same values to reinforce these values in the global architecture,” US Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs and Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Alice G Wells had said.
During his India visit, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had also said that he looked forward to further cooperation in the broader Indo-Pacific region as the two countries promote a rules-based approach to the commons and a transparent and sustainable approach to economic development. “We’re glad to be joined in this effort by our close mutual partner, Japan, and I was honored to participate in a trilateral discussion on these topics with my friends, Minister Swaraj and Minister Kono, in New York last month,” he said.